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Crofton mill paper operations shuttered indefinitely

Owner Paper Excellence announced Thursday it is “indefinitely” closing its Catalyst Crofton paper-producing operation, but will keep operating the pulp side of the mill, which has close to 400 employees.

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Months of hoping and waiting for Paper Excellence’s papermaking operations to start up again at Crofton have ended for the 75 remaining workers.

Owner Paper Excellence announced Thursday it is “indefinitely” closing its Catalyst Crofton paper-producing operation, but will keep operating the pulp side of the mill, which has close to 400 employees.

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In a statement, it blamed substantial increases in operating costs as a result of “market dynamics, inflationary pressures on raw materials, energy cost opportunities, and a lack of local domestic fibre supply.”

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The curtailment comes a year after a celebratory announcement attended by provincial and federal officials of $18.8 million in joint funding to keep the paper line running and save 100 jobs. The plan was to see the mill retool to manufacture new products to reduce use of single-use plastics.

The mill’s future has been an continuing concern in the ­Cowichan Valley — North ­Cowichan Mayor Rob Douglas contacted Forests Minister Bruce Ralston this month urging the province to help keep the mill operating.

Douglas, who was at the mill last year when the funding announcement was made, said he was surprised and disappointed by the news that the paper operation would be shuttered indefinitely.

“We were all very excited about what that investment was going to mean for the future of the operation as far as long-term sustainability.

“Things obviously haven’t worked out as we’d all hoped.”

The worst part is the affect on the workers who won’t be returning to their jobs, said Douglas, who plans to contact local employers to see what job vacancies may exist.

“A lot of these people have deep roots in the community. They don’t want to uproot their families and move somewhere else.”

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Some workers have been off the job since July and are running out of money.

Tanner McQuarrie, president of Unifor Local 1132 representing paper workers, said he was not surprised by the announcement, but added: “I’m very sorry how the company did it.”

The company has imposed continued shutdowns over the past several months, citing poor global markets.

Several younger mill workers relocated to the company’s Port Alberni mill. But others, like McQuarrie, remained in hopes the Crofton mill would start up again.

“They dragged a lot of young families and good workers on for too long. But I’m glad that there’s some clarity about the future now,” he said.

McQuarrie said language in the collective agreement will provide for 52 weeks of severance pay for a senior employee if the mill is closed on an indefinite basis. If the company said the shutdown was permanent, that worker would receive eight weeks more severance.

McQuarrie, 34, who once believed the pulp and paper sector would carry on for decades, said he is discouraged about the future, and will likely look to work in another area. “Our skills aren’t very transferable.”

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He said he is “very worried” about the pulp side of the operation.

Blair Dickerson, vice-president of public relations for Paper Excellence, said the company will look at internal vacancies and other opportunities at the Crofton site along with other company mills for the 75 affected employees.

About 30 Public and Private Workers of Canada union members earlier moved from the paper operations over to the pulp side.

Going forward, the Crofton team will focus on making the remaining pulp operations cost competitive and aligned with its overall business strategies and direction, the company said.

“Paper Excellence Canada will continue to supply our customers with products typically made at Crofton from other mills within the Paper Excellence Group where possible. The company remains fully committed to growing the specialty business.”

As far as the $18 million, it’s unclear what is next. McQuarrie said he understands the company plans to return the funds with a penalty payment.

The company’s statement did not state that, however, saying only that it will “respect the terms and conditions of all contribution agreements affected by this indefinite curtailment and will work with the appropriate government agencies on the next steps.”

A $25,000 fine was imposed on Paper Excellence this month for discharging more than one million litres of toxic material into marine waters in 2021.

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