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Can't We Grow Hemp Instead?

Port Hawkesbury's ghost town status gets another extension, Pacific West makes off with the public coffers, and things aren't really clear cut

by Miles Howe

Stumped. [Photo: Nivek29]
Stumped. [Photo: Nivek29]

(K'jipuktuk) Halifax – Single-resource towns, such as Cape Breton's Port Hawkesbury, necessarily experience boom and bust periods, as fluctuations in global supply and demand are variables beyond immediate control. When it comes to softwood-derived paper products, the wrenching open of world supply, with very little in the way of effective monitoring as to sourcing, has created something of a 'race to the bottom'.

So it was that on Monday, Aug. 20, the provincial NDP government, not wanting to see two out of the three large-scale pulp and paper mills fail on its watch, propped up the Port Hawkesbury mill (formerly Newpage-owned) with an offer totalling $124.5 million of public moneys.

Much has already been made as to measuring the costs and benefits of keeping Port Hawkesbury alive. Prospective new owners Pacific West Commercial claims that it will spend $165 million annually on payroll and investments at the mill, which really does make a one-time $124.5 million bonanza look like a good investment.

Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), local 972, with a “gun to their heads,” recently voted to accept a newly-trimmed workforce. Pacific West's offer is to employ 229 unionized workers, down from a former workforce of about 600. Whether this results in a halving of Port Hawkesbury's total population remains to be seen.

Nova Scotia Power, certainly happy to have one of its largest industrial clients back, has granted a special deal to Pacific West. Nova Scotians, by now used to this kind of thing, may or may not be surprised by a new rate hike directly related to Pacific West's deal, and will inevitably continue to pay the highest taxes in Canada.

But remain hopeful, because it appears that at least the trees themselves will be cut and processed according to the highest industrial standard that 'independent' certification can provide.

According to Matt Miller, forestry program coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is now on the table between the province and Pacific West. In signing on for FSC certification, Pacific West would be following in the footsteps of former Port Hawkesbury mill owners.

“Stora [pre-Newpage mill owners] was the first major pulp mill in eastern Canada to achieve and maintain FSC certification,” says Miller. “It's a win-win situation, both for the company in terms of marketability, and for the public in terms of peace of mind, that [FSC certification] should be made part of the criteria.

“Stora and Newpage were already leading the pack in terms of major Nova Scotian industrial players who were voluntarily trying to clean up their act as far as practices were concerned, and it was driven largely by that FSC certification.”

FSC, with over 40 million certified hectares in Canada, is the forestry product certification body du jour. It has, however, come under criticism from a variety of angles, including the actual “third party-ness” of its certification process. In 2006, serious issues were raised with its largest Canadian client, Tembec, and clear cutting practices in the Boreal forest.

Miller believes, however, that FSC certification is a far better alternative than leaving Crown Land to the abysmal provincial standards. The province, in following up on its "Natural Resource Strategy" commitment towards reducing clear-cutting as a harvest method to no more than 50% of the total take by 2016, last week announced a new working definition of the term "clearcut." The new definition, according to Miller, is in many instances worse than the old definition of clear-cutting. The definition reads:

"In Nova Scotia, a clearcut is now defined as a forest harvest where less than 60% of the area is sufficiently occupied with trees taller than 1.3 meters."

“They ended up allowing themselves to be bullied into releasing a very weak definition,” says Miller. “On paper they're going to be able to say 'Yeah, we're meeting our targets. We're reducing clear-cutting.' But in actual terms on the ground, there's going to be virtually no improvement in the way we manage our forests. Because they've set the bar so low, in some cases it's actually going to be worse than clear-cutting.

“If a harvested area has at least 60% of it covered in trees that are four feet tall, then it's not considered a clear-cut. Consider a football field, where from the 60 yard line, back over half to the goal line, is covered in four foot [1.3 metre] tall trees, and the remainder, from the 60 yard line in, is [bare]. That's not a clear-cut.”

On a bright note, the province did purchase over 20,000 hectares of Newpage forests for $20 million of public money. There is the distinct possibility that pennies on the dollar of this money might well trickle its way down to the long list of unsecured creditors that Newpage's folding left in its wake. Among these are pensioners from CEP local 972, and independent operators the province over.

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Topics: Environment
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