Though the 100-year-old Port Alice pulp mill has been shuttered for more than five years it still could have a bright future if it is re-purposed, says John Twigg, North Island candidate for the Conservative Party of B.C. in the provincial election on Saturday.
“I’ve looked into the unique situation of Port Alice and realized there are several other activities that could be done well there,” said Twigg, who visited the remote West Coast community when he ran in the previous provincial election and has been following its news ever since.
“The site probably won’t be revived as a renewed pulp mill because the present owners, a Chinese company called Fulida, reportedly haven’t even paid its property taxes since 2018 let alone found millions of dollars to renew the very old mill,” said Twigg, a long-time business journalist who has studied dozens of business cases in his 50-year career.
Twigg noted that the Port Alice mill’s failure to pay its taxes has been a severe hardship on the Village of Port Alice because the mill had been by far the largest taxpayer in the virtually-single-industry town, apart from a few service businesses and some logging, and so the village now cannot afford to even maintain the road to the mill, which is located on sheltered Neroutsos Inlet that opens to the west side of Vancouver Island through Quatsino Sound on the far north end of the island.
The community’s population is now only about 700 people, down from more than 800 when the bleached-pulp specialty mill was operating and thus there are problems maintaining health and social services too.
Port Alice Mayor Kevin Cameron says the village has asked the provincial government for financial help to maintain the road but so far none has been forthcoming, which he said is a growing problem because the road to the mill also runs through the centre of town and is still being used by logging trucks making up to 20 trips a day which he said “is seriously degrading the road”.
Even though the North Island constituency’s MLA was the Campbell River-based Claire Trevena who also served as Minister of Transportation and Highways, it seems the John Horgan New Democrats so far have done nothing to help Port Alice, noted Twigg, surmising that that may have been because providing financial help would set a costly precedent for many other communities too.
Recently the Mayor of Port Hardy, Dennis Dugas, spoke about calls endorsed by the Union of B.C. Municipalities regarding the necessity of providing provincial funding “for the purchase by communities of Fire Emergency Equipment and Infrastructure.”
Dugas noted that the 4.4% tax imposed on auto insurance for fire, and on property insurance for fire, was always intended for fire protection, but has instead gone into the province’s general revenues.
“Whether it is a rural municipality in an area hard-hit by the loss of resources jobs or any other small rural community that counts on their volunteer fire department, governments in recent years have stepped away from their obligations,” said Twigg, applauding Dugas and Port Alice Mayor Kevin Cameron for raising this important question during the election campaign, noting a solution could involve the insurance premium tax revenues being made available for small rural communities’ fire protection as once intended, especially to support such communities meet their training and equipment needs.
B.C. Conservatives leader Trevor Bolin, who also is a councillor in Fort St. John and thus is familiar with UBCM issues, recently announced that he and other elected Conservative MLAs will make it a priority to see that such tax revenues be used for the purposes intended and not vanish into the province’s General Revenues.
“The equipment and support needs of rural communities, many of whom drive the resource economies of our province, needs to be fully funded,” said Bolin, who is running in the North Peace River constituency.
“There is no question about the importance of our first responders, and the valuable service they provide. They should not be left without the supports they need,” Bolin added.
Options abound for new uses of mill site
“The loss of the Port Alice pulp mill has been a huge blow to the economy of North Island and unfortunately the Horgan NDP government so far has done little to revive it or replace it,” said Twigg, noting the site has many assets still useful including buildings, a large supply of water and a deep-sea dock.
Twigg says his inquiries yielded reliable information from B.C.’s Harbour Pilots group that the harbour is still viable for use by deep-sea ship tankers though the docks may need to be renewed and the berths re-dredged for depth, which he says is good news because that means the Port Alice mill site could be repurposed for other industries such as possibly aquaculture, water-bottling or even bulk-water exports since the mill site had its own electricity and water supplies from nearby Alice and Victoria lakes.
“In fact there are many industries that could be located in Port Alice, such as locally-based cottage industries, in agriculture, greenhouses, education, training and perhaps post-jail transitions for released prisoners,” said Twigg, noting that the long road from Port Alice to the Island Highway would offer some security advantages.
Another potential use would be to take in waste plastics from the world’s oceans and re-melt them into new products, such as maybe park benches, walking canes or “green” uses such as climbing supports for food plants like peas.
“Water-bottling and bulk exports of surplus fresh water might work especially well in Port Alice because much of the equipment and facilities needed for such commerce are already there in place, notably large tanks, and so are simply awaiting renewal and re-purposing,” said Twigg, who for many years has been closely following B.C.’s potential bonanza in water exports to a world increasingly demanding clean potable water, especially for markets in California and Asia that can be best serviced by large tanker ships.
“One of the benefits of this current B.C. election is that it can and has highlighted opportunities for B.C. to do things in new and better ways and this problem and opportunity situation with Port Alice is a prime example of that,” Twigg concluded.