Most of the 180 workers to be laid off in the partial shutdown at the Howe Sound Pulp and Paper Mill will still have a few months’ work remaining, their union says.

The surprise announcement of an “immediate closure” of the Port Mellon plant’s paper and TMP (thermo mechanical pulp) operations came July 23 from the mill’s corporate owner, Paper Excellence Canada, of Richmond, B.C.

The union for about 140 of the laid-off employees quickly issued a release to reassure its membership that “immediate” didn’t necessarily mean right away.

“Union-affected members of Unifor Local 1119 will continue to work… and can potentially take a transfer to one of the other three pulp mills that Paper Excellence owns in B.C.,” Local President Don Rheaume said in a release.

The union said the employees will still have 12 weeks work before the layoffs take effect, with severance payouts to come after that. Health benefit packages will remain intact until the end of the year.

Rheaume said the closure “came as a shock to us all,” and he hoped to secure severance packages, early retirement packages, and re-training opportunities for those affected.

“The management has indicated that there are many options on the table, and we’re going to explore all of them,” said Rheaume.

Other operations at the mill will continue, meaning continued employment for the remaining 335 staff members. The company will also still be the largest private employer on the Coast.

“While this has been a difficult decision to make, the Kraft pulp mill and power generating businesses at the Howe Sound Mill will now become stronger and more sustainable,” said David Kerr, Vice President with Paper Excellence Canada.

The company blamed the waning demand for newsprint for the shutdown.

“Newsprint prices have continued to decline year over year and are expected to continue declining due to shrinking markets and over-capacity,” it said.

The layoffs are part of a pattern in the last six months in the North American pulp and paper industry, with hundreds of workers laid off in Washington, Minnesota and Maine.

Plant General Manager Steve Bird said the unusually dry weather in southwest B.C. was also a factor in the timing of the closure.

“In light of the extreme drought conditions experienced since May, the decision to cease paper operations was advanced to help conserve water supply,” Bird said.

The mill has occupied the Port Mellon site under various owners since 1909. Rik Jespersen