L to R – Brian Fehr (BID Construction)

Radium sawmill officially reopens

Canfor President and CEO Don Kayne calls Kootenay operations "huge" to overall success of company.

The Radium sawmill has officially reopened after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday, October 31 and Canfor president and CEO Don Kayne says the company’s Kootenay operations are “huge” to the overall success of his company moving forward.

“In terms of some of the markets and some of the shifts that we’re seeing going forward from a customer standpoint, some of the products that people are looking for worldwide; certainly they’re looking for a higher quality product,” Kayne told The Valley Echo. “Being in the Kootenays with some of the fibre that’s here, we’re able to provide that now, where in the past we weren’t able to provide that degree of high quality that we are able to today.”

The special event was attended by Kayne; Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Steve Thomson; Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Bill Bennett; Ktunaxa Nation Chair Kathryn Teneese, and Village of Radium Hot Springs mayor Dee Conklin, among others. After the ceremony, those in attendance were able to take part in an hour-long tour of the sawmill, led by Radium plant manager Don Soderlund.

“It’s a great feeling to be here today, and just see it officially reopened,” Minister Thomson said. “I was here a few months ago when they were first getting started, and to see the change today and to see the logs running through the mill, I think it’s a great day for Radium and a great day for the valley.”

According to a Canfor press release on the Radium mill restart, the sawmill first closed in May 2009 due to “dated technology making the facility unable to compete in poor market conditions.” When Canfor acquired the Canal Flats and Elko sawmills in December 2011, it also announced it would be investing $50 million in the company’s southeastern B.C. facilities, without specifying which facilities would receive the investment funds. Then, a $38.5 million investment in the Radium sawmill was announced in April earlier this year, which included the installation of a biomass fired thermal oil energy system, the construction of a new planer facility, and a wide range of technical improvements.

The biomass energy system is one of the largest developments for the Radium sawmill. The new energy system uses wood waste produced by the mill itself — bark, wood chips and sawdust — as fuel for lumber drying, a process once dependant on propane. This greatly reduces operating costs for a sawmill whereby Canfor has estimated that 20 per cent of operating costs could be attributed to the use of propane as a fuel source.

“It’s super exciting,” Kayne said, when asked how it felt to reopen the sawmill. “Just driving down the hill into the plant after three years of being down… and seeing the lumber in the yard, and seeing the mill in just the condition that it’s in, is pretty neat to see after all these years. We’re absolutely so keen to be back in production down in the valley here.”

Just prior to the mill shutting down, direct staff totalled 144 workers. For the restart, 123 employees were eligible for recall and, of those staff, 86 have returned — a 70 per cent return rate. Canfor estimates that by the end of 2012, 136 people will be employed directly at the mill, and that number is forecasted to increase to 144 in 2013.

Radium mayor Dee Conklin she is pleased by the high return rate, and that the impact of the mill reopening can be felt across the Columbia Valley.

“The trickle down affect has already started, the motels, restaurants and businesses are feeling an increase in business already,” Conklin said. “Not everyone is back yet so we are all looking forward to the company running at full capacity. The entire valley will benefit.”

Both Kayne and Thomson agree that market conditions have improved significantly since the mill first closed, and pointed to Asian and American markets as a major driver of sales. In particular, Thomson noted from 2003 to 2011, shipments of softwood lumber products to China have ballooned from $69 million to $1.1 billion, an increase of 1,500 per cent.

“I think the other key part that’s allowed them to make the investment is the great work that the Province, Canada and the industry has done in building market opportunities,” Thomson said. “The industry came together collectively to help build those markets. We helped lead those initiatives, but it was really the industry.”

Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald toured the facility several weeks prior to the event, and called the sawmill an important part of the valley’s economy. What Macdonald also found encouraging was that logging companies like Canfor are beginning to turn their attention back to the region.

“The fact is that the wood out of the Cariboo (region) — the pine beetle wood that these companies were concentrating on — is largely working its way through,” he said. “The companies are starting to turn their attention back to the greenwood areas like the southeast here… the good healthy forests in the province are in this area.”

The B.C. government is currently conducting a province-wide timber supply review

“I think this is obviously going to have a very significant impact on the area, this provides jobs for contractors, for people in the bush, for fallers, truckers,” said Thomsen.

And enforcement of proper logging practices will be carefully monitored by ministry staff, he said.

“Canfor has got a great operation, (they are) world leaders in sustainability,” Thomsen said. “Overall across the industry, we have the highest level of forest certification in the country; it’s something that we take very seriously.”

After fatal explosions at sawmills in Burns Lake and in Prince George earlier this year, safety in B.C. sawmills has become the focus of intense scrutiny. Kayne was quick to say that Canfor has a number of safety initiatives already in place and that his company has learned a great deal from those incidents. With increased sharing of safety practices among the industry, he added, further progress continues to be made.

“We’re just really focused continually on dust, and elimination of it completely and as best we can,” Kayne said. “We’ve made — as an industry, let alone Canfor —some great progress on that by working together just to come up with improved solutions.”