07/29/2014 04:00 EDT | Updated 09/27/2014 05:59 EDT

New Brunswick legislature approves change to Fraser Papers pension plan

FREDERICTON - Retirees in New Brunswick from a defunct paper mill will receive increased pensions as of September after the province's politicians unanimously passed legislation Tuesday to enact the changes.

Members returned to the legislature for a special one-day session to pass amendments to the province's Pension Benefits Act to hike pension payouts for former workers from Fraser Papers in Edmundston.

The changes will also convert pensions for both retirees and current employees of Twin Rivers Paper Co., which took over the mill in 2010, to a shared-risk model as of September.

Members of the Fraser Papers plan voted overwhelmingly in favour of the changes earlier this month. Their decision means that payout reductions imposed in June can be immediately reversed.

Twin Rivers has also committed to make payments of about $3 million annually for the next 15 years into the shared-risk pension plan.

Natural Resources Minister Paul Robichaud said the retirees were receiving 54 per cent of their expected pension, but the changes will increase that to almost 65 per cent.

Premier David Alward said there was an urgency to the matter and that was why members were summoned back to the legislature during their summer break.

"If we didn't do it now, then it would be as much as eight months later, and that's completely unacceptable," Alward said.

The legislature adjourned in May. The province has an election set for Sept. 22.

There are about 1,200 people who have the pension plans, about half of whom are retired.

The former Fraser Papers mill declared bankruptcy in June 2009, citing weakness in the pulp and lumber markets, a cash shortfall and underfunded pension obligations.

On Monday, the provincial government gave Twin Rivers access to an additional 200,000 cubic metres of wood from Crown lands. The announcement gave the company a total annual allotment of about 500,000 cubic metres of Crown wood.

The additional wood is part of a 10-year forestry plan announced in March that will allow forestry companies to harvest an additional 660,000 cubic metres of softwood a year — a hike of 20 per cent.

Robichaud said there are two more deals with other companies to be announced before the full forestry plan is released.

That has drawn the ire of Liberal Opposition Leader Brian Gallant.

"Frankly, it's getting to a point where it's a bit ridiculous that we haven't gotten any indication of where the wood is going to come from," Gallant said Tuesday.

"We haven't gotten any indication of the information, data and scientific research that they've used, and we don't even know who is writing the forest management plan."

Robichaud said Tuesday the legislature now stands adjourned until Nov. 18 unless other business requires it to sit sooner.

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