Stung by smelter closing, Belledune looks to $1B iron plant proposal

Belledune is a village with more questions than answers after learning it will be losing the Brunswick Smelter and its 420 jobs before the year's end. 

The plant closure, announced by owner Glencore Canada last week, has sent municipal officials scrambling to mitigate the impact on affected families and ward off significant declines in the population and tax base.

Their gaze is now shifting to one potential player that could help step in and fill the void: Maritime Iron Inc.

The Brian Gallant government announced in June 2018 plans for the company to set up a $1-billion iron-ore processing facility in Belledune. The former premier said at the time the project would create 1,000 short-term jobs and more than 200 permanent jobs.

Shane Fowler/CBC

"Everybody's got a lot of hope for that project, especially if you look at the skilled workers that came out of the smelter," said deputy mayor Sandenn Killoran on Monday night after the first meeting of village council since the news.

Killoran will be one four councillors heading to Fredericton on Tuesday to speak with officials from the provincial government and Maritime Iron about what can be done to make the project a reality.

He said they hope to follow the appropriate approval route but to do so in an expedited manner.

But even with a smooth, accelerated process, the company won't be announcing construction until well into next year, Killoran said.

The deputy mayor also touched on the need to diversify the local economy, which relies on heavy industry. He said the industrial tax base accounts for 70 per cent of the village's revenue. 

"We haven't really evolved ourselves into a community that can compete and draw in other industries," Killoran said.

Attracting new industry

According to Mayor Joe Noel, the New Brunswick government will freeze its tax base for 2020, but the village is looking into how it can attract different kinds of companies to the area.

But that hasn't been easy.

Village council and union officials are still waiting to learn more about the company's plans for the workforce and decommissioning the facility that's operated for more than 50 years. It's vital information that can dictate next steps, Noel told CBC News prior to the meeting.

The mayor said, for instance, one unnamed company enquired whether Glencore will be leaving intact some of its infrastructure.

"We have to be positive. There are other companies that are interested in coming to Belledune," Noel said, adding he has fielded multiple calls from interested parties in recent days.

Serge Bouchard/CBC

Noel said he'd like to bring in the tech industry and green energy. 

Port of Belledune CEO Denis Caron outlined a series of opportunities to expand their operations last week. The year-round, deep-water port has lots of space to grow, he said.

Retraining workers

Village council also discussed retraining programs to assist the affected workers on Monday night.

Coun. Lilliane Carmichael said many workers found employment at the smelter straight out of high school and learned on the job, meaning they do not have proper certification.

Shane Fowler/CBC

"I think it's important to give the opportunity to the people that want to stay in the region to get the training and, hopefully, get a job if another industry is coming."

Killoran said communities that faced hard time sand managed to rebuild "invested in their people." A trained workforce, coupled with Belledune's port and industrial infrastructure, can be attractive to prospective companies.

"They maybe paying a premium for Canadian workers, but they're paying a premium for skilled Canadian workers, and I think that's what they'll get if they move to Belledune," he said.

Officials said it's unclear what kind of severance packages will be made available to the workers. Talks are ongoing between Glencore and the union.