Forestry Ink: Options for keeping the 100 Mile OSB plant operating

Columnist Jim Hilton looks at what other OSB plants have done when facing closure

Jim Hilton

Observer Contributor

The loss of the two mills in 100 Mile House was devastating for this forest-dependant community, and in my opinion, the loss of the OSB plant could have the most long-term impact since it means a lot of non-saw log material will not be used.

With the loss of so many lumber mills due to reduced saw logs, the hope was that the smaller residual material for power plants, wood pellets, pulp wood chips and OSB material could help reduce the impact.

While the reduced AAC in the 100 Mile Timber Supply Area (TSA) no doubt will impact the ongoing operation of the OSB plant, it appears that a depressed OSB market is probably the main factor for the closure. This is supported by the recent closure of the LP OSB plant in Fort St. John, where the low price of OSB (35 per cent lower than this time last year) is cited as the major problem and not availability of raw materials. The direct loss of jobs at the 100 Mile OSB plant is obvious, but jobs that have been supplying the raw materials will also be lost, for example 20 per cent of the mix was aspen from the north, also the small logs (down to two inches dbh) from the Williams Lake Community Forest, as well as the salvage logs from the 2017 wildfires. While fir is not usually preferred as much as the pine and spruce, it appears that the burned fir logs have been somehow chemically altered so that they are superior to the unburned logs and have improved the final OSB product because of their alteration and inclusion in the softwood mix.

Some have suggested that the government should step in to help reduce production costs. While I agree that all levels of government should be involved, I will not attempt to cover political involvement in this article. It may be worthwhile to see what other OSB plants have done when faced with similar circumstances of impending closures. For example, a fibre plant in Quebec was working with a local lumber manufacturer to see if they could supply a portion of the chips. By altering some of their equipment, the mill as able to meet the specifications of OSB chips. Another plant in Saskatchewan invested $3.4 million in their plant to upgrade from commodity-grade OSB up to engineered wood products like laminated strand lumber. The Tolko plant at Meadow Lake can now produce a family of strand-based panel products from a single line, which allows them to sell outside of the normal U.S. housing market.

Modifications to the raw material intake may be necessary since a government study showed that the 100 Mile TSA had the best ratio of economical residual material of any TSA in the province.

While the large companies have lots of resources and experience to make decisions like when to shut plants down, it sometimes takes local initiatives and experience to keep a plant working.

For example, when Nanaimo’s Harmac pulp plant at Duke Point fell on hard times in 2008 during the global recession, employees banded together to purchase the mill alongside local investment groups. The company recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its takeover. Among those celebrating were members of the Williams Lake-based Pioneer Log Homes, who were one of the major investors.

Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo-Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.

READ MORE: Forestry Ink: Canopy Meg; a living legend

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