The 50-year-old recovery boiler at the Neucel Specialty Cellulose mill in Port Alice came crashing down in a planned demolition on Wednesday morning, marking the latest step in the multi-year effort to clean up the site and return it to Mother Nature.
“Oh definitely there were mixed feelings,” said Port Alice Mayor Kevin Cameron. “There were a lot of emotions at play because that’s where many people worked 35, 40 years and now it’s gone and it’s not coming back.”
The Neucel Specialty Cellulose mill, which once produced sulphite dissolving wood pulp, is owned by Chinese company Fulida Holdings.
The mill, which dates back to 1917 and was once the backbone of the community, employed almost 500 people in its heyday.
“It was the heart of our village, with the employment, the monies that were generated, the people that lived here, it all surrounded the mill basically,” said Mayor Cameron.
Peter Bazille, a Port Alice native, worked at the mill from 1966 to 1988 and quickly moved up the ranks to management, traveling the world to sell the mill’s products.
Bazille said that the recovery boiler that was just demolished was a critical addition to the mill’s operations in the early 1970s.
“The recovery boiler was built so instead of dumping the sulfite spent liquor, the red liquor down into the sewer into the ocean, we recovered it, condensed it and burned it,” he said.
Spent sulfite liquor is a by-product of the process used to manufacture dissolving pulp using the acid sulfite method.
But a by-product of production ceasing at the mill has been a significant improvement in the water quality of the nearby inlet.
The return of whales to the area, as well as the increasingly clear water, has led the village to believe that tourism could be a potential new industry for Port Alice.
“Our waterways are just crystal clear,” said Cameron. “It’s very seldom that you can’t see a humpback whale out there or a sea otter and you know, one brick in the wall at a time reinventing ourselves and it’s quite the place to be now.”
As the site is slowly reclaimed by the environment, Pricewaterhousecoopers, a court-ordered receiver, is overseeing the site cleanup. The project is being characterized as a “de-risking and recycling” that could take years.