The tiny North Island community of Port Alice is facing more questions than answers after the skeleton crew still staffing its embattled pulp mill were unexpectedly sent home Monday.
Chinese-based owners Fulida have yet to reveal what it plans for the Neucel Specialty Cellulose pulp mill, after sending its remaining workers home with no written notice and no paycheque.
According to Unifor Local 514 president Don Vye, all the employees still working at the pulp mill were told to go home around 1 p.m. on Feb. 27.
“This guy from China who works for Fulida (the company that owns Neucel) gave direction to the HR manager and the mill manager to go tell the employees to go home and that they were not going to get their paycheques,” Vye said.
Approximately 12 workers, five of which were union members, vacated the premises.
So far, there has been no indication of whether this marks the beginning of a permanent closure of the mill, which has been dormant for four years. The firm has yet to respond to media enquiries.
“That’s the problem, nobody is answering the question if it’s a permanent closure,” Vye said. He added he has tried contacting the company, but has received no answers.
Also unknown is what’s going to happen to the property with regards to security and the waste material left over. Vye said there is an obligation by those in senior management positions, most likely the HR manager and the mill manager, “to contact the Ministry of Environment and deal with it.”
Even though everyone was sent home, the five union members still have recall rights (34 months from March 18, 2018) and are still considered employees of Neucel. All five of those employees who still have recall rights could be due severance pay if permanent closure is announced.
Vye added the closure came suddenly, because he was at the site in the morning talking to the Vice-President of Human Resources, Warren Beatty, “and he mentioned nothing about it.”
Before the mill went into curtailment back in 2015, Neucel Specialty Cellulose had 320 unionized employess. Of those 320, just five are left and considered eligible for severance pay under the collective agreement — primarily due to the company declaring a curtailment instead of a permanent closure.
Neucel makes up 70 per cent of Port Alice’s tax base and still hasn’t paid its taxes, which were due back in July of 2018, totalling around a million dollars.
If the taxes continue to go unpaid, then the current taxes become arrears the following year. If the arrears continue to go unpaid, then they become delinquent the next year. Properties with unpaid delinquent taxes are then sold at a tax sale on the last Monday of September.
It was back in February of 2015 when the pulp mill went into a production curtailment following three consecutive years of unfavourable pulp prices, combined with the high cost of oil, energy consumption and operating chemicals, as well as an unfavourable low U.S. exchange rate.