A newer, safer, smaller sawmill will be built in Burns Lake to replace one destroyed by fire earlier this year – if final details can be worked out between the government, owner and local first nations.
All three parties were at a news conference in Burns Lake on Monday to announce their support for the proposal, which would give an economic boost to a town devastated by a dust explosion fire last January that killed two workers, injured 19 others and eliminated 250 jobs.
“You’ve got three very willing parties here. We are all sitting here arm-in-arm knowing that we have a task out in front of us, but there are always details that you have to work through,” said Pat Bell, British Columbia’s Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation.
A scarce timber supply and province-wide pine beetle infestation have led to speculation that the mill would never reopen. But Mr. Bell said the parties were able to reach an agreement on how to bridge the timber supply gap and get the mill running again.
“I think this is a very exciting day,” he said. “It is one of those few times in your life as a political leader that you get to come out and say everyone’s pulled together and the results are there … it’s a great day for Burns Lake.”
“It’s a solid yes, with a subject-to or a contingency, as the lawyers like to say,” Steve Zika, CEO of the mill’s owner, Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates, said of the decision to rebuild.
Mr. Zika said the board has decided to go ahead with the project, but is waiting until proposals made in a government letter have been nailed down in a final agreement. He said the company has already started preliminary on-site preparation and is lining up the equipment needed to build a state-of-art mill.
“It’s been very recent,” he said of the proposals made by government. “They all sound good. We just need to see these agreements, to get them in place, and that’s what we’re trying to do in the next couple of months.”
Mr. Bell said the hard work is behind them and a final deal should be done in December.
“We’re kind of entering the next phase. The technical work … has been completed. Now it’s a question of the six first nations, Hampton and the province figuring out the details,” he said.
Mr. Bell said that under the agreement, the government and six bands – represented by the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation – will commit to providing Hampton Affiliates with 459,000 cubic metres of timber annually.
He said 380,000 cubic metres of that allocation will primarily come out of low-value stands of forest that were previously not part of the provincial forest inventory.
Mr. Bell said some of those dead stands were previously considered too marginal to include in the inventory, but the Burns Lake fire led to a more intensive look. Pockets of valuable timber to give to native bands were identified. The bands have agreed to cut the timber to supply the mill.
As part of the agreement, Mr. Bell said, the province has also agreed to do more intensive silviculture, including forest fertilization, to ensure there is a long-term supply of timber.
Mr. Zika declined to say exactly how much his company will spend on rebuilding the mill – only that it will be “substantial,” with jobs available for “50 per cent to two-thirds of the former employees.”
Chief Albert Gerow, a director of the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation, said he was thrilled by the news.
“This is an excellent day …there’s been a cloud of despair over the community of Burns Lake,” he said.