Cut to Cowichan Bay mill hours could close doors: manager

Faced with information that the Western Forest Products sawmill at Cowichan Bay might close if restricted to daylight-hours operation, North Cowichan council has rejected a push from Goetz Schuerholz to enact a bylaw that would do exactly that.

Schuerholz, chair of the Cowichan Estuary Restoration Conservation Association, had complained about noise and light pollution from the mill and had recently sent a letter to council, calling on them to pass a bylaw restricting mill operations to between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. with no work on weekends, enforce conditions from the original mill development permit (which dates back to the 1970s), and stop the use of air horns by trucks leaving or arriving at the mill site after 6 p.m. Mill Manager Derek Haupt appeared before council at its Sept. 3 meeting to reply to some of the concerns with some strong answers that found echoes among councillors.

On the request to restrict mill hours, Haupt said bluntly, "if that was supported by council, the mill would no longer be financially viable and that would most likely result in a permanent closure of the mill, eliminating 110 permanent employees and all the spinoff industry associated with us."

Both Coun. John Koury and Coun. Ruth Hartmann were quick to jump on that one.

"Just a reminder to folks in North Cowichan," Koury said. "We are an industrial town. We have the operations in Cowichan Bay, in Crofton and in Chemainus."

Hartmann said she, for one, "had never thought of restricting operations" at Cowichan Bay because it involved "a lot of jobs".

Haupt then moved on to the request for no use of air horns after 6 p.m. "It’s a matter of safety that air horns are used by semi-trailers prior to backing up," he said. "But there are two standards we have to follow and at WFP the safety of our employees is our first priority. We want to ensure everybody goes home safe. I couldn’t sleep at night if I thought somebody was in danger. We can work to mitigate some things but, when it comes to back-up horns or beepers or yard lighting, we have to ensure the safety of our employees is the top priority."

Coun. Kate Marsh spoke out on that topic.

"I do feel concerned when you talk about the air horns. For me, safety is the most important thing. We had a tragedy not long ago in this valley. I would hate to see any ignoring of safety standards. I think most people understand that," she said.

Haupt said that Western Forest Products contracted a consultant in 2006 to do a noise study of their operations at the Cowichan Bay sawmill "to develop baseline noise levels and provide us with information on areas where we could make improvements."

He listed a number of improvements at the mill to reduce noise levels and others to reduce light overflow into neighbouring residential areas.

"Looking forward we have contracted [a sound and light engineer] again for a follow-up study to let us know where we’re at and provide further information on how we can improve our noise emissions. We will also move forward with new lighting to see if it makes a difference, if there’s new evidence." In replying to the third CERCA request, that of enforcement of three conditions relating to the original development permit of 1975, Haupt said that the mill was complying with the concept of being quieter than "the average intensity of traffic noise" as required in that permit.

"WFP recognizes and respects the fact that North Cowichan municipality has the authority to adopt noise bylaws and also has the authority to monitor and enforce them," he said.

In a professional assessment, the noise levels were found to be 42 decibels daytime and 44 db night time. "In comparison with other municipalities that have quantitative noise bylaws, such as Victoria, or any other information I’ve been able to review regarding average traffic noise in this country, it appears we are well within those limits," he said.

The company is planning to continue to work to reduce noise levels and work with neighbours. "However we also have to be assured that our operations remain financially viable and that we are provided some level of certainty from all levels of government," Haupt said, adding that the company’s financial statements are available online. "While we’ve had a couple of good years recently you do not have to look too far back to see tougher times. We’re a cyclical business and are dependent on world markets."

Coun. Al Siebring asked if the mill seems noisier at night because the ambient noise in the area is less. Haupt agreed that could be a factor.

Back in 2006 he was not at the mill so he, too, is reading old reports, he said, pointing out that when he sees the consultants again "that is one of the questions I will be asking. There is no difference in our operations daytime to night time. I know there are differences based on the weather. If we have an inbound wind, they can’t hear us at all."

"What are we comparing street and traffic noise to?" Siebring asked. "Downtown Crofton? Or along Tzouhalem Road where there is no traffic noise because it’s a rural area? Can our staff answer that? What are we using as the standard there?" Scott Mack, director of development services, told council that a typical traffic noise reading is in the 60 decibel range.

"From that perspective this operation is well within that," he reported.

"It’s also important for people to realize that the sound ratings do not go up in a linear fashion," added Mayor Jon Lefebure. "There’s a very large gap between a reading of 40-something and 60."

After hearing Haupt’s presentation, North Cowichan council decided that Lefebure will draft a reply to Schuerholz and CERCA and bring it back to council for a review at the next council meeting.