After Northern Pulp mill closure, anxiety mounts in rural N.S. communities dependent on forestry

Click to play video: 'Pictou residents preparing for Northern Pulp shutdown'
Pictou residents preparing for Northern Pulp shutdown
WATCH: (Jan. 27, 2019) In just over a week, the Northern Pulp mill will close. Workers are already being laid off, and the economic impact of that closure is expected to ripple through communities in Pictou county and beyond. Jesse Thomas reports. – Jan 23, 2020

In a garage filled with a massive – and idle – road grader, Scott MacGillivary’s anxiety grows as he wonders what’s to become of his family following the closure of a Nova Scotia pulp mill that paid his bills.

The mothballing of the Northern Pulp factory located 200 kilometres east of his Advocate Harbour, N.S., business has already meant the layoff of his sole employee and the parking of an almost new Volvo construction machine used to clear and plow forestry roads.

“I have a family and 16-year-old boy who dreamed of working in the forestry industry. But that’s almost gone now. I really don’t know what to do now,” he said in a recent interview, his voice breaking with emotion.

READ MORE: Province adds millions more to forestry transition fund, while forest workers want their cut

The 46-year-old says that without work from Northern Pulp, his income has plummeted to one-fifth of normal levels, and he’s making daily calls to a government help line. The province set up the toll-free line after it rejected the mill’s request to continue pumping treated effluent into a lagoon behind a Mi’kmaq community, prompting the mill to stop production on Jan. 31.

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But so far, MacGillivary says, there’s no summer government work on offer, and the worrying reality of bank payments is looming as work in the local woodlots dries up.

“Emotionally, it’s on you all day. You don’t know what to do,” he said, leaning on a tire with treads the width of his weathered hand.

His fears are common in a provincial industry that had been shipping between 35 and 40 per cent of harvested pulpwood – the portions of a tree that can’t be used for lumber – to the now idled mill, a subsidiary of multinational Paper Excellence.

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia to use 50M fund to help forestry sector'
Nova Scotia to use 50M fund to help forestry sector

A consultant’s study prepared for unionized workers at the mill last year estimated the mill was tied into a complex supply chain of 943 businesses, generating about a half billion dollars worth of work annually.

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One example is Ron Slocum, a trucker in his 60s whose tractor trailer works the same logging roads as MacGillivary’s graders.

“It’s discouraging when you’ve done this all your life and it ends up the end of the road, pretty much,” Slocum said, standing alongside his empty vehicle.

As for the truck, he’s not expecting to be able to sell it for much now: “Nobody wants forestry gear.”

The Northern Pulp mill in Abercrombie Point, N.S., is viewed from Pictou, N.S., December 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Eight kilometres away, wood harvester Laurie Currie said he’s laid off from 7 Gulches Forest Products, a family-owned woodlot. “I’m out of work now, and I don’t have enough work for employment insurance,” he said in an interview.

Each of the forestry workers interviewed said they hope Northern Pulp will reopen.

But the mill’s proposal to pump its effluent into the Northumberland Strait was rejected in December as incomplete, and the company now faces filing a fresh environmental assessment that could require several years to prepare. The factory in Abercrombie Point, N.S., remains in “hibernation” with a skeleton staff.

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The Liberals have announced a $50-million transition fund for the forestry industry, including funds to help contractors make payments, to promote silviculture, to retrain workers and to find alternative markets for pulpwood and wood chips the mill once purchased. Last week, the province announced that after having already spent $13.5-million, it would top up the fund as initial projects are announced.

READ MORE: Northern Pulp workers finish final shifts as plant put in ‘hibernation’ 

However, without the mill, wood prices are falling quickly, and alternate sources of work may not emerge quickly enough to save the industry, forestry veterans say.

Family enterprises that have operated for generations are facing prices down 15 to 20 per cent for portions of the tree destined for sawmills, said Mac Davis, a forester who manages lands for C.E. Harrison Lumber.

Click to play video: 'N.S. woodlots feeling impact of impending Northern Pulp closure'
N.S. woodlots feeling impact of impending Northern Pulp closure

In the area near Welton Lake, inland from MacGillivary’s yard, one of Davis’s harvesting machines was recently cutting mature spruce trees into sections destined for sawmills, while leaving a stand of hardwood maples to grow for the next 30 to 40 years.

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However, about one third of the spruce being taken that day was pulpwood, and other than some local farmers buying firewood, there is no longer a market for it.

Davis said in an interview that a full-blown crisis could arise after roads shut down for annual weight restrictions in early March. He’s worried that following the annual closure, which lasts until early May, wood prices will have fallen so low there will be no incentive for woodlot owners to continue to harvest.

That could mean the end of the supply to the province’s remaining sawmills, and “there would be no forest industry” remaining, he said. “It’s a very scary situation.”

Debbie Reeves, a member of the province’s nine-person forestry transition committee, says the way out of the crisis may lie in “many small localized, regional fixes, rather than one big fix.”

READ MORE: Investment, innovation key to future of Nova Scotia’s forestry sector

That could include following Prince Edward Island’s model of promoting small-scale wood-energy projects, creating a market for the lower-grade wood that Northern Pulp once used. Nova Scotia’s forestry transition team recently announced a request for proposals to heat six provincial facilities with wood.

Matt Miller, a 37-year-old forester in Green Hill, N.S., has advocated for more environmentally responsible management, and sees some opportunities amid the challenges of the closure of the mill.

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He refers to local wood heating as “the most encouraging model” to replace the lost pulpwood market and encourages the province to move faster on that file, taking advantage of the woodlot organizations poised to co-ordinate supply.

“The value is good today and will likely get better in an era when fossil fuel energy will continue to get more expensive,” he said in an interview.

Click to play video: 'As Northern Pulp shuts down N.S. mill workers look to move elsewhere'
As Northern Pulp shuts down N.S. mill workers look to move elsewhere

However, Davis says big questions remain on how to get through the next six months.

“Smaller-scale pellet mills or smaller-scale wood heating of office buildings, offices, schools or hospitals doesn’t touch the scale of lost markets we’re talking about,” he said.

One of the other possibilities remains selling to Port Hawkesbury Paper LP in Cape Breton, the province’s remaining paper mill, which is now taking more wood chips from the province’s sawmills.

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READ MORE: No accurate number on those displaced by Nova Scotia mill closure, officials say

But the firm’s business development manager recently told reporters his mill uses about a third of the volume of wood the now-shuttered mill in Pictou County used to take.

For MacGillivary, the solutions have to come soon if he’s to continue a way of life that has lasted generations, labouring on the frozen roads weaving through the mixed Acadian forests in his county.

Otherwise, he says, “come May 1, there’ll be no work to go to.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2020.

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