CORNER BROOK — Liberal Leader Dwight Ball says his party wasn’t breaking its commitment to not play politics with Corner Brook Pulp and Paper when it issued a press release Tuesday asking for a status update on a long-term plan for the mill.
The new release said it’s time for an update from the provincial government, which has committed to helping the struggling mill if the company can come up with a long-term strategy for the operation’s sustainability.
“Our concern is that it’s been very quiet for quite some time now,” Ball said from his constituency office in Deer Lake later in the day. “What I’ve been hearing from talking to people in the district and around the west coast is that a lot of people are very anxious about their future, and many of them are considering relocating to other jobs in the spring.”
Last summer, four of the six labour unions inside the mill agreed to new contracts that involved concessions. A fifth union eventually agreed to a new contract last fall, while the sixth has yet to come to terms. Two other unions external to the mill — woodlands workers and employees at Deer Lake Power — have also not yet agreed to new deals.
The unions themselves have been decrying the fact that many employees have been quitting and leaving for employment elsewhere because of the mill’s uncertain future.
“The last thing we need, from Kruger’s point of view as the employer and owner/operator, is that they would risk losing key employees, or any employees really, to either megaprojects in our province or Alberta, simply because we have a process that is taking longer than it should,” said Ball.
No details of what government is prepared to do have been released, but it is widely believed the help would consist of an investment in upgrading the mill’s infrastructure.
Ball said one union representing a relatively small number of employees inside the mill should not hold up addressing pressing infrastructure concerns.
The mill is smack dab in the middle of the district of Natural Resources Minister Tom Marshall, who was recently shuffled to that portfolio, which has the lead in negotiations with Kruger regarding the company’s future plan for the mill.
Marshall, who was previously involved in the negotiations in his former role as finance minister, said talks are still going on. Company representatives, he said, were in the province last week to meet with officials from the departments of Natural Resources, Finance and Justice and Nalcor, the province’s energy arm.
Another conference call is scheduled for this week, added Marshall. Progress is being made, he said, but it is not up to government to say when the company should take up the offer of assistance.
Marshall is not aware of the company saying it needed 100 per cent of its employee issues addressed before the plan would be acceptable and government assistance taken.
“We have offered reasonable support and have had discussions about what that support will be,” said Marshall. “Those discussions are still ongoing and they have been frequent.”
The minister said the paper mill is the foundation of the province’s forestry industry, and this issue transcends politics.
“(The Liberals) had indicated they would not make this a political issue,” said Marshall. “I’m disappointed they seem to have changed their position. This is an issue where we must all work together and not let politics cause any difficulties here. We all want the best for the pensioners and the people who work at the mill.”
With the provincial government going about preparations for what it has already said will be a lean budget this spring, Ball said it is important that people understand what government is getting into and that there is indeed a long-term viability plan for Corner Brook Pulp and Paper.
“Do we have the audits (on the company’s finances) complete? Do we know what the magnitude of what the investment would be? These are inportant things to know,” said Ball. “I don’t want to put ourselves in a situation where, when Kruger comes knocking on the door, that the government is not prepared for the amount of money they could be asking for.”