Gitxsan Forest Enterprises welcomes reopening this week of Pacific BioEnergy's Kitwanga, British Columbia, sawmill, expects increase in logging jobs

SMITHERS, British Columbia , May 4, 2011 () – After more than a decade, the logging industry is showing some promise once again in the North with a rise in market prices and the re-opening of the Kitwanga Lumber Mill this week which means more jobs for the Hazeltons and the surrounding areas.

Pacific BioEnergy, based out of Prince George, originally acquired the mill out of receivership in 2009 with plans to turn the site into a pellet plant.

However, the increasing demand for British Columbia wood from China has created an opportunity to run the sawmill as is according to mill spokesperson, Brad Bennett who spoke in Terrace and Kitwanga last week.

For the Hazelton based Gitxsan Forest Enterprises Inc, the news of the sawmill reopening is a good step in the right direction and means more jobs, according to GFEI manager Cam Stevens.

“On the logging side and siviculture side this will mean more work for the area,” he said. “Right now we only have two logging contractors and with the mill going back into production we hope to have four by this summer.”

Both Bennet and Stevens agreed that the current indications on the lumber market are strengthening making it feasible to move forward and reopen the sawmill.

“It’s starting to come together and the pulp market has improved quite a bit since last year and is expected to improve even more,” Stevens said.

It’s this increase in the market that Bennett said led to the reassessment of the mill.

“The biggest driver is the lumber market has improved to a point where it makes sense to run the operation as a standalone operation without any linkage back to the pellet facility,” he told the Black Press. “It’ll stand and make money on its own two feet. When the pellet facility finally comes and we put all those pieces together, then it’ll just strengthen the business, and it’ll make more money.”

In addition to the increase in jobs in the Kitwanga and Hazelton area, this is also good news for former employees of the mill according to Bennet who said they hope to have 45 people back to work by the summer with expectations to increase that in the future with the creation of the pellet plant.

“We believe it was also important for us to retain our employees, get them back to work,” Bennett said in a television interview. “We see that particular asset as a key part of developing a wood pellet business as the residuals that would flow from that facility would be eventually made into wood pellets.”

However, things will start off slowly and this week they plan to begin with the return of the maintenance workers to get the mill back up and running and ready to go.

“Once we have essentially a sustainable supply of logs at the facility, our plans are to bring the crews back,” Bennett said. “Our target date is June 6, basically, for reopening.” Yet he added that this will depend on getting access to timber and getting a flow of wood to a point where it can support a plant.

For GFEI, this will depend on the road and weather conditions Stevens explained.

“As soon as the ground conditions are right we will be moving but it has been a long winter,” he said. “The scales at the mill are reopening May 16th and we will hopefully be up and running by the end of May.”

As for the future of the pellet mill, Pacific BioEnergey has applied to lease the land next to the current sawmill site with the expectations of building the new facility there. However, there is no current timeframe set for that but Bennett said the best case scenario would be this fall but may be more realistically ready next spring.

After the meetings last week in which had more than 200 people attending to learn more and show their support Bennett said they feel the communities are behind them.

“The First Nations in the area have been extremely helpful in moving things forward,” he said. “So we’re putting the pieces tighter and we’re quite pleased to see our ability to bring our employees back to work again.”

Once up and running Bennett said they project that 60 per cent of the production will be sent to China with the remainder saying in Canada.

Files from the Terrace Standard.

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