Harmac earned its pot of 'green' federal cash

Daily News
Published: Saturday, October 10, 2009

The news just keeps getting better for Nanaimo's venerable Harmac pulp mill. On Friday, International Trade Minister Stockwell Day was in the city. Day was doing more than just touring the employee-owned facility: He came bearing gifts.

Gifts to the tune of $27 million from the feds as part of a national $1-billion aid package to assist our struggling pulp and paper industry. Nearly 40 mills across the country will share in the windfall, with the mill in Crofton receiving $18 million.

What's a little surprising is that the funding comes in response to the $6 billion in subsidies and credits that the U.S. offers to its mills using black liquor.

Suprising because governments at all levels have been harshly criticized for getting walked on by their U.S. counterparts when it came to forest industry dealings.

Nanaimo-Alberni MP James Lunney was on hand, proclaiming that the cash shows western Canada is not being ignored by the government. Such comments seem a bit self-serving but the mere attempt to match the efforts south of the border to prop up the industry has to be seen as an encouraging step, although industry insiders will likely say it isn't nearly enough.

It remains imperative that our government officials stand firm when it comes to protecting our industry and they must strive to maintain palatable agreements with our neighbours to the south Another positive outcome from this program is that the mills must use the money for either improvements to their energy efficiency or their environmental performance.

Harmac's own plans include upgrades to the mill's boilers to operate more efficiently with less effluent and the production 70 to 100 gigawatts of power from on-site wood at a generation site that would be added to B.C.'s power grid.

Anything that increases efficiency and green initiatives at any mill is something we should all get behind.

Harmac president Levi Sampson optimistically says the pulp and paper industry is on the way to becoming one of the greenest in Canada.

That is certainly a lofty goal but perhaps the most impressive part of the announcement on Friday was Day's choice of locale.

Harmac's worker-owner model has gained the mill some well-deserved national notoriety and remains a success story to be proud of. Day acknowledged this, commending the local group for "not just sitting back and taking a pounding" and making efforts to forge ahead despite worldwide economic difficulties.

He said Harmac is proving to be successful due to the innovative actions of its new ownership.

Exploring diversity and reinvesting in new initiatives is something that didn't occur enough in past decades and is one of the reasons for the industry's current struggles.

The unique approach forged by worker-backed investors and their management team at Harmac have not only maintained but increased their output, recently adding a second line of production. We have detailed previously that this is nothing but good news for our region.

Harmac's success has confounded cynical forest industry analysts and become a model not just for pulp mills but other businesses where employees purchase the operation from their employers and are said to have "pulled a Harmac." We must hope that the government's gesture is just the beginning and only the first step to help restore the forest industry to some of its former glory.

The halcyon days of the 1980s are long behind us but with innovative ownership models and continued government assistance, the industry need not fade to oblivion.