Mill Towns

New mill, new optimism after years of forestry decline in Port Alberni

Construction is starting on $70-million sawmill and manufacturing facility for high value products that will add mill jobs in Port Alberni for the first time in years.

Construction is starting on $70-million sawmill and manufacturing facility for high value products

Glen Cheetham used to work at the Somass sawmill in Port Alberni. It shut down in 2017. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Standing outside a chain link fence that surrounds the hulking buildings of the shuttered Somass sawmill in Port Alberni, Glen Cheetham recalls better days.

Cheetham, 53, once worked at the mill and is now a representative with the United Steelworkers local 1937, which represents the workers.

"Back in 1981, there was like 1,200 members in the mill and when I started in 1989, there were still 450 members," he said.

The Somass Sawmill in Port Alberni once employed more than 1,000 people. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Western Forest Products announced it was indefinitely curtailing operations at the mill in 2017 due to industry pressures such as the softwood lumber dispute. 

"People depended on it obviously for their livelihood...it's just something that nobody wants to see go away," Cheetham said.

In Port Alberni, and the rest of Vancouver Island, forestry jobs have been on the decline for the past two decades for reasons that include everything from increasing mechanization to shifts in global markets.

Mike Ruttan, the former mayor of Port Alberni, has done consulting work for the company building the new mill and manufacturing plant. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

But a short drive down Port Alberni's waterfront from the closed Somass mill, construction is starting on a brand new sawmill that is bringing some hope for new jobs.

A B.C. company called the San Group is investing about $70 million to build the new mill and associated re-manufacturing plants. It plans to produce high-value engineered wood products from smaller logs.

"We will be processing with special sizes, and all species, and turn it into finished product right in Port Alberni. That is what our plan is," said CEO Kamal Sanghera.

The investment comes as the B.C. government implements policy changes for the forest industry. The Coast Forest Sector Revitalization aims to see more wood and fibre processed in B.C. 

Pieces of equipment have begun to arrive for a new sawmill in Port Alberni, which will be located on an empty lot next to the Catalyst paper plant. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Mike Ruttan, a former Port Alberni mayor, has been doing consulting with the San Group. He sees the new sawmill as the type of modern operation the policy changes can support.

"They're saying the right things. If the right incentives are there, and probably the right disincentives are there, it can all work," Ruttan said.

"This is very much the future of the industry. Squeezing out every bit of value out of that fibre," he said.

But those on the harvesting side of the forestry business are more wary of the policy changes, which include measures to curb raw log exports.

Port Alberni is known for its mills, but some raw logs also leave the community on cargo ships. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

The Hupačasath First Nation, which has run its own forestry company for more than a decade, is among those who are concerned.

Forestry manager Warren Lauder says any measures that boost log processing and bring more jobs to Port Alberni are welcome, but worries changes to raw log exports will lower the price the nation can get for the trees it harvests.

"It'll affect exporting prices, which in turn make our revenue a lot less," he said. "Is it going to benefit us or we're going to go backwards?"

Warren Lauder is the Hupacasath First Nation forestry manager. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

More details on the changes the provincial government is making to forestry policy are expected in the months to come.

In the meantime, Port Alberni Mayor Shari Minions is getting ready to welcome the first new mill operation in years, and the jobs that come along with it.

"We've always been a forestry town and we are," she said.

"There's been a long decline and I think companies like [San Group] give you that hope that we can start moving forestry into the future and our community will see a real benefit to that."

Listen to the complete radio documentary below:

After years of forestry job losses in Port Alberni, a new $70 million mill is taking shape that will focus on smaller logs and high value products. 9:46

Mill Towns is a series by CBC Victoria exploring how forestry-dependent communities on Vancouver Island view changes planned by the provincial government to revitalize forestry on the B.C. Coast. 

About the Author

Megan Thomas

Reporter

Megan Thomas is a reporter for CBC in Victoria, B.C. She covers stories from around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Follow her on Twitter @meganTcbc.

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