Furey government mum on details as Come By Chance talks drag on

·4 min read
PC Leader David Brazil says constituents whose futures rely on the Come By Chance refinery need answers on a new deal announced last month. (Mark Quinn/CBC - image credit)
PC Leader David Brazil says constituents whose futures rely on the Come By Chance refinery need answers on a new deal announced last month. (Mark Quinn/CBC - image credit)
Mark Quinn/CBC
Mark Quinn/CBC

Families affected by the closure of the Come by Chance refinery are anxious for details on a new agreement announced last month, according to Opposition Leader David Brazil.

But the Furey government says it's staying tight-lipped until the deal is done.

In late July, a representative for United Steelworkers Local 9316 confirmed Texas-based Cresta Fund Management would purchase the site currently owned by North Atlantic Refinery LP (NARL), with plans to produce renewable aviation fuel and diesel from used cooking oil, corn oil and animal fats.

But few details of the acquisition have been released since that announcement, adding to the uncertainty that has lingered since the plant closed in March of 2020.

"We're encouraging [government] to be open and transparent," said David Brazil, who is also MHA for Conception Bay East, "because families are on edge right now."

A sea of uncertainty

Court filings showed 243 people were laid off when the Come By Chance plant closed last spring.

For a time, the future of the refinery looked promising: Irving Oil announced in May of 2020 it was in talks to purchase the facility, but the company withdrew the application in October.

About a month later, Baltimore-based Origin International put forth an offer, but Silverpeak — the entity that owns NARL — rejected it.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

By year's end, the refinery was down to about 50 employees. That's when the Liberal government stepped in, allocating $16.6 million to keep the plant in warm idle mode, which allowed most of those employees to keep their jobs while a new deal was struck.

Now, eight months later, some 200 former employees of the Come By Chance plant are still waiting to know if, and when, they'll be going back to work.

"People need to know that so that they can ... look forward in the coming weeks and months [to] getting back to work and having a secure future for themselves," Brazil said.

"We're asking the government: Be open and transparent. Explain to the workers and to the union, look, things are still in the works."

Water under the bridge

One of the factors to be ironed out in the agreement is the government's responsibility over the site's environmental liabilities.

In a 2014 bid to shore up the Come By Chance site for a future sale, the province took responsibility for contamination and other environmental issues incurred on the site during its 40-odd years in operation.

John Pike/CBC
John Pike/CBC

Seven years after that deal was struck, the details of those environmental liabilities have still not been released. Brazil claims they're in the range of $230 to $240 million. But, that's water under the bridge now, he said.

"At the end of the day, the liabilities are minimal at this point because we're operating an entity and an asset that works for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador," he said.

"What we need to do now is ensure that the employment is there for people and then we find ways to mitigate any of those environmental liabilities."

Pleading the 5th

Minister of Industry, Energy and Technology Andrew Parsons says he's aware of the urgency, and recognizes the importance of the refinery for the region. But he maintained the details of the deal are solely between the two entities involved.

"It's hard for me to talk about it because a lot of this is commercially sensitive," he said. "And I'm certainly not going to do anything on my part to cause any trouble."

However, Parsons didn't hesitate to criticize the PC Party for what he calls "fear mongering" behaviour.

"[It] is causing some harm and some fear, I think, especially to workers who are wondering," he said. "I don't think it's necessary."

Brazil retorted that the concerns his party has raised are those of residents themselves.

"We've heard from constituents that are saying we're not hearing much about what's going on," he said, "and other media have reported that there's been an extension. So that sometimes gets people thinking: 'Well, why? What's going on? What's wrong?'"

As for the province's responsibilities when it comes to cleaning up 40 years' worth of contamination from the Come By Chance operation, Parsons was mum on details.

"The reality is that [the information] is not owned by government — it's owned by NARL, which is the operating partner. We don't pay for it. We're not responsible for it. So I cannot give up information that we do not have," he said.

"I'm just trying to work on a deal here that's going to see positive gain for the province," he said. "We're going to see positive spinoffs here, but that work cannot be done in public."

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