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Canfor Weighs Rebuilding Plywood Mill

Vancouver-based company will look at how the Prince George plywood mill fits in with other operations before deciding on an estimated $80-million rebuild.

PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. (CP) -- It will be months before Canfor Corp. decides whether it will rebuild its North Central Plywoods mill, which was gutted by a massive fire Monday night.

There are a number of factors that will be considered in making a recommendation on the estimated $80-million rebuild, which will be put before the Vancouver-based company's board of directors, Canford senior official Mark Feldinger said Wednesday.

The company will look at how the Prince George plywood mill fits in with sawmill operations in Prince George, the ability to build on the current site versus other sites, the availability of contractors, and the impacts of the mountain pine beetle epidemic, which will decrease the timber supply in the region.

Feldinger said the company will also look at how to retain a qualified, local workforce. Workers could be waiting up to two years for the mill to re-start, he said.

Even though the forest sector has shed thousands of jobs in northern B.C., there is demand for skilled workers in the oil and gas, mining and construction sectors.

Feldinger said if a rebuild goes ahead, carry-over positions for plywood plant employees would need to be found.

Of the 250 workers at the plant, 220 unionized employees have already been issued lay-off notices, although their wages will be paid out until the end of the week. The 30 or so management personnel will not be laid off. Feldinger said the company will be able to find positions for most of them.

Kelly Cunningham, a Canfor employee who initially battled the blaze before firefighters arrived at the scene, called the situation ''very overwhelming.''

''I still can't get it out of my head,'' he said Wednesday following a company meeting at the Civic Centre.

''I don't think it's really soaked in yet. When the money's all gone, that's when we're gonna realize it,'' said the 37-year-old employee, who has been with the company for 13 years.

Cunningham was told he could immediately apply for Employment Insurance. He will continue to receive benefits for six months.

Employees need to have worked a certain number of hours in the past year to be eligible for a maximum weekly EI payment of $435.

Randy Brophy, who only worked at the plant a month or two, won't be one of those, but the 18-year-old is taking the disaster in stride.

''It was an awesome job, but who knows, probably for the best,'' he said. ''Gonna go to school instead of working at the mill for the rest of my life.''

The sudden destruction of the plywood plant comes as blow to Prince George, which has already seen hundreds of layoffs as a result of an unprecedented forest sector downturn, led by a collapse in the U.S. housing market.

The Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada (PPWC) union, which represents hourly workers at the plywood plant, is vowing to lobby Canfor and the province to ensure the mill restarts.

Whether the plant will be rebuilt remains a question mark in the minds of forest sector analysts, who stress it will be a tough decision for the company.

Canfor is also struggling in general, and there is the fact that plywood is not its core business, observed Russell Taylor, president of the International Wood Markets Group.

Canfor has posted losses of $446 million in the past 15 months, closing sawmills and an OSB plant, reducing shifts and work weeks. Canfor, like other Northern Interior companies, has been reacting to poor lumber and panel prices, a high Canadian dollar and a 15-per-cent export tax on lumber shipments to the U.S. (Prince George Citizen).

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