Hampton Affiliates CEO says British Columbia moving as fast as it can on timber supply issues related to possible rebuild of Babine Forest Products after forests minister visits Burns Lake; company hopes WorkSafe B.C. will release sawmill site soon

BURNS LAKE, British Columbia , March 14, 2012 (press release) – A decision on fibre supply issues in the Lakes District needs to be made sooner, rather than later.

This is the message Forest Lands and Natural Resources Operations Minister Steve Thomson brought with him to Burns Lake last week on his first visit to the community since the Babine Forest Products explosion and fire.

Minister Thomson said to Lakes District News that the government is hoping to come to a decision about the fibre supply issues surrounding the possible rebuilding of the Babine Forest Products sawmill by the end of March or beginning of April.

Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad was also in town to discuss the issue.

Minister Thomson said he had the chance to meet with First Nations stakeholders, Hampton Affiliates chief executive officer Steve Zika, Mayor Luke Strimbold and officials at the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako during his one day visit to Burns Lake.

"We had a very positive meeting with Steve Zika at the Babine Forest Products office," he said, adding that a tour of the sawmill site was not possible because of the WorkSafe B.C. investigation, as well as his time constraints.

Thomson said he provided updates to all stakeholders about the work that the province is doing. "We are continuing to work towards a solution to the fibre supply issue," he said.

Rustad said a firm target date for a decision has been set for the end of this month, or possibly early April.

"We have a strong team in place and additional analytical work is still being done around the fibre supply issue," Rustad said.

Minster Thomson praised the work of both former beetle bosses, Bob Clark and Ray Schultz, who have relocated to Burns Lake and are working as part of Jobs Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell's economic recovery team

"We are working as hard as we can to come up with potential approaches to the fibre supply issues," Minister Thomson said.

"We hope that the decision we come to will provide Hampton Affiliates with an approach that will allow them to rebuild the Babine Forest Products sawmill," he added.

"We are actively engaged in the discussion and we are optimistic that we can find a solution. There is still a great deal of work to be done though," Rustad added. He said that every possible option is being looked at to increase the size of the 'timber supply' pie in the Lakes Timber Supply area.

"We haven't ruled out any particular thing, we have no preconceived bias and everything is on the table for discussion, including visual quality objectives. That is not to say we are going to approve everything, just that we are looking at every option," Rustad said.

In terms of governmental decisions, Rustad said things are moving very quickly.

"A decision like this would usually take years of consultation. We have already been thinking about the local timber supply issue for years, but the explosion and fire just accelerated everything," Rustad said.

Minister Thomson said that he does does understand the community is anxious for answers and he said the government is working as quickly as possible to remove the uncertainties for the community.

Zika also provided an update to Lakes District News.

He said he felt the meeting with Minister Thomson and Rustad was very positive. “The government is doing a good job in a very difficult situation and they are moving as fast as practically possible with the timber supply issues.”

Zika said he is hoping that the sawmill site will be released by WorkSafe B.C. sooner rather than later so things can move forward. He said the sawmill’s insurance can’t be settled until the assessors are able to come on site and investigate.

“WorkSafe B.C. still have the site taped off and we are not allowed access.”

During his two day trip to Burns Lake, Oregon based Zika said he also met with Burns Lake Band Chief Albert Gerow, Mayor Luke Strimbold and a number of injured Babine Forest Products employees.

“The community really seems to be pulling together ... it is great to see. It is also great to see some of the employees have found other employment in the interim, but we hope that they will come back and help us reconstruct and work at the sawmill. I remain very optimistic that the sawmill will be rebuilt,” Zika said.

Hampton Affiliates are now in the process of planning for a new sawmill to be built at the site and Zika said sawmill plans and drawings are being worked on, as well as discussions about what type of machinery will be installed.

“We just can’t sit back and wait, we have to be proactive in this,” Zika said.

As for the remaining rough lumber inventory at the sawmill, Zika estimates that it will be put through the Babine Forest Products planer in April, bringing back one shift of about 15 to 20 people for a month of work.

Power to the planer and sawmill site is also expected to be back on this week.

“We are now doing the final negotiations for selling the remaining [approximate 125,000 cubic metres] log inventory as it can’t be left in the log yard for months. We are looking at delivering the logs to the successful bidders during the next month or two.”

“We will be selling logs to the highest bidder and this decision will probably be made in the next couple of weeks. The lumber market is picking up in the U.S. which of course helps us sell the logs and gives us a better price.”

Zika said that Richard Vossen, Babine Forest Products woods manager is also currently negotiating a deal to sell logs to Comfor Management Services Ltd. business Sheraton Holdings Ltd.

As reported in the Lakes District News edition of Feb. 10, 2012 the mothballed Sheraton Holdings Ltd. sawmill is expected to reopen this month.

“Business is good,” Zika said, reiterating that he remains optimistic the sawmill will be rebuilt.

WorkSafe B.C. director of communications Scott McCloy said he had no update on the sawmill investigation at this point, but said that because of the long term nature of many of the claims of injured sawmill workers, WorkSafe B.C. will have a case management presence in Burns Lake for up to a year to ensure ongoing service to the workers and their families.

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