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Interfor closes Maple Ridge sawmill in latest blow to B.C. lumber industry

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WATCH: Critics say Interfor's decision to close a Maple Ridge sawmill is a business decision, and not tied to the struggles in the forest industry. John Hua reports – Sep 4, 2019

More than 100 workers are in jeopardy after Interfor Corp. announced plans to permanently close its Hammond ceder sawmill in Maple Ridge, further impacting B.C.’s lumber industry.

The Vancouver-based company says the closure is part of a reorganization of its forestry and woodlands operations amid tight supplies of logs for processing.

It says the shutdown will be complete by the end of 2019, after the mill’s remaining log and lumber inventories have been processed and shipped.

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Interfor chief executive Duncan Davies says the company, which has 18 mills across North America, will seek jobs for the affected workers at its other operations or at outside mills.

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But Al Bieksa, president of the United Steelworkers Local 2009, said that brings little comfort.

“These members, their lives are being turned upside down,” he said. “We’re going to work very, very hard to do everything we can to help them in their transition — whether it’s to retirement or to new employment — but nothing will make up the disruption this closure has caused to their lives.”

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John Neely, who works as a head rig sawyer at the Hammond plant, says the news came as a shock to everyone.

“It’s pretty somber here, to be honest,” he said. “A lot of guys don’t know what’s going to happen, you know?

“For me, it’s been 39 years here. It’s been the only job I’ve ever had, pretty much right out of high school. I’m 57 now, and I can’t retire yet, so there’s some tough decisions I’ll have to come up with.”

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The Hammond mill mainly processes Western red cedar and has a two-shift capacity, but Interfor said it has been operating with a single shift for several years due to log supply constraints and other issues.

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Those issues are the latest to impact B.C.’s forest industry, which has seen more than two dozen mills throughout the province either shut down or cut hours this summer alone, along with hundreds of layoffs.

A lack of supply and volatile markets were blamed in those cases, while Davies said cedar producers such as the Hammond mill have been “disproportionately impacted by duties on shipments into the United States as a result of the softwood lumber dispute.”

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Minister of Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Doug Donaldson says the province is taking action on the dispute, and is working hard to try and prevent any further impacts on the industry.

“These things take time to turn around, and changes are long overdue,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is maximizing value over volume, and … creating investment in mass timber products. That’s the future.

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“I understand the kind of stress [those workers] are going through, and we’re supporting workers … but also looking long-term towards what the industry should look like.”

READ MORE: British Columbia braces for more closures as forestry sector continues to struggle

Interfor is still awaiting a provincial decision on its $60-million offer to acquire Canfor Corp’s Interior cutting rights after that company closed its Vavenby sawmill in July.

When the planned deal for the cutting rights was announced, Interfor said the additional supply would “solidify” its Adams Lake operation east of Kamloops, B.C.

None of the timber was earmarked for Interfor’s coastal mills but a company statement issued Tuesday said the Hammond closure could create opportunities to increase supply for its other Metro Vancouver sawmill, located in Delta.

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“The Coastal B.C. forest industry has faced significant log supply challenges over the past two decades and manufacturing capacity needs to be brought into line with available log supply,” Davies said in the statement.

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Closure of its Maple Ridge sawmill would result in “repatriation of working capital tied up at Hammond,” while “monetization” is planned for the prime Fraser River-front property, the company said.

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