In an unprecedented move to stave off environmental disaster, the B.C. government took over the operation of a Mackenzie pulp mill on Sunday. The development is the latest twist in a bizarre story involving mysterious Slovenians, a brew of toxic chemicals and a group of unpaid workers in the province’s remote north who have been forced to barter for gas to maintain their mill.
The trouble began in Mackenzie, 180 km north of Prince George, not long after Alberta-based Worthington Properties bought a foundering pulp mill at a bargain price last fall. But Worthington never began operations and it stopped meeting payroll weeks ago, says Carl Bernasky, president of CEP Local 1092. Workers soon had to trade empty barrels with locals for gasoline to keep up operations. “We got to the point we didn’t have toilet paper,” says Bernasky.
The workers alerted the government they could not continue running the mill and that, given the low temperatures, over a million litres of chlorine product could freeze, rupturing its containers and causing an environmental mess that could cost as much as $50 million to clean up.
Now B.C. has committed to covering the workers’ paycheques. “There was a high risk to human health and that was why we decided to step in,” says forests minister and local MLA Pat Bell. Permitting the gambit is a provision of the Environmental Management Act that empowers the government to enact something akin to martial law when faced with an environmental hazard.
Bell is adamant that Worthington, owned by Dan White of Edmonton, will pick up B.C.’s costs. “Our government does not intend to be a pulp mill operator,” he says. “Worthington still is fully liable for the site, all their obligations remain and we will certainly be chasing them.” But a recent media report claims that White has stepped down as company director, replaced by Drago N. Puskaric of Slovenia. Bell would not speculate about the reported personnel change, saying only that it “would not indicate good faith procedure, and I find that most concerning.”