The Progressive Conservatives and NDP said Resolute Forest Products is blocking the sale of the shuttered mill to Expera Specialty Solutions of Wisconsin because it still controls the timber surrounding the town near the Manitoba border.
"Expera, a speciality paper company, was interested in reopening the plant, but they could not get a reasonably priced supply of wood fibre essential to make the project viable — that price is controlled by the past owners of the mill," complained PC northern development critic Norm Miller.
New Democrat Sarah Campbell, who represents the Kenora-Rainy River riding that includes Fort Frances, said residents don't understand why Resolute retains the power to price the wood supply so high that it makes a deal with a willing buyer unachievable.
"We have a mill. We have ample wood supply, and we have a company that's interested in buying," said Campbell. "Yet we can't attract this new investment in Ontario because the existing mill, that company has control over the wood supply."
People in her community are upset at seeing trees being harvested in their region but then sent to mills in other towns, added Campbell as she called for a change in the licensing rules.
"If that mill goes down, then those (timber) rights should go back to the Crown," she said.
In the legislature, Campbell accused Natural Resources Minister Bill Mauro of putting the interests of his community of Thunder Bay ahead of the interests of the people of Fort Frances.
"Minister, is the reason why you're refusing to resolve this situation in Fort Frances because the wood is going to your riding to be processed instead of staying in Fort Frances," Campbell asked during question period.
Mauro shot back by saying that just before the 2011 Ontario election, a wood supply attached to a mill in Thunder Bay was given to a mill in Fort Frances.
"How did you feel about the flow of wood at that time," he asked.
Miller said he understands the frustration of Fort Frances residents who see timber being harvested and shipped elsewhere while their mill closes, even though there's a company that wants to buy it.
"You've got a company that wants to run the mill, which is critically important to the area, but they can't get an economically viable supply of wood fibre to make it possible," he said. "I think the system needs to change."
Forest companies won't invest in Ontario, or elsewhere, if they don't get a guaranteed wood supply, which is why the licenses give them control of some Crown forests, added Mauro.
"The wood is not tied to the mill in Fort Frances," he said. "The wood, under the conditions of the sustainable forestry license, has always been allowed to go to different places. That's what has been going on for a long time."
A delegation of politicians and First Nations leaders from the Fort Frances area visited the legislature Tuesday to press the Liberal government to help the sale of the mill go through so it can reopen in the spring.
The Tories accused Premier Kathleen Wynne of scheduling a last minute news conference at the same time as the Fort Frances delegation was supposed to meet with reporters at the legislature.
"At the last possible second, the premier stepped on their media conference by booking her own... to draw all of the media out of that room, and it succeeded," said PC critic Vic Fedeli. "I found that offensive."
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