What happens when you find yourself stuck between a strand board and a hard place?The future leader of the NDP is certainly going to find out. For it is going to be left up to whomever replaces outgoing Premier Gary Doer to settle a simmering battle that could very well change the economy of the far west of the province.
Louisiana Pacific, a large American company, operates a plant in Swan River that makes oriented strand board. Recently, LP served notice that it wanted to shut down its regenerative thermal oxidizers (RTOs), a important emission control device that eliminates carcinogenic toxins, because they cost more than $3 million a year to operate.
The company argues that Manitoba is the only jurisdiction in Canada to require such stringent controls on emissions. LP insists that any move to force it to continue operating the RTOs, or install newer generation emission control equipment, will result in 175 layoffs and potentially the permanent closure of one of the region’s biggest employers. LP has weight behind its demands; in addition to those who work at the plant, there are hundreds more in the region employed in related industries.
LP’s strategy has infuriated environmentalists, who believe the people of Swan River should not have to trade their health for jobs.
They will claim that LP has been whacked in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency and assessed millions of dollars in fines for doing exactly what, in essence, they are trying to do in Manitoba.
The environmentalists are expected as well to release information soon that shows that LP has drastically underestimated the level of toxins emitted without the RTOs in operation.
This dispute is headed to the Clean Environment Commission for a full hearing. At first blush, you might think this would take the issue right out of the hands of politicians. Unfortunately for the new leader of the NDP, in Manitoba the CEC only makes recommendations to the government in power. The final decision is left to cabinet.
This would be fascinating political dilemma for any government, but it’s particularly intriguing for the Manitoba NDP, where new-wave, pro-business social democrats have been known to clash with more traditional, crunchy granola, hug-a-tree social democrats.
Project this issue onto a NDP leadership race and you’ve got the makings of some real fireworks. So where, you may ask, do the leadership candidates come down on the great LP dilemma?
Minto MLA Andrew Swan said in an interview that he does not anticipate going against the CEC’s recommendation. He added that he believed that despite LP’s hard line on eliminating the emission control systems, there may still be room to negotiate a compromise with the company.
A spokesman for Greg Selinger essentially took the same position, arguing that the NDP government has a track record of reaching deals with large employers when they are faced with capital deficiencies or market forces beyond their control and face extinction.
The spokesman said Selinger “will take seriously any advice provided by the CEC.”
Steve Ashton, who was in Dauphin Thursday, could not be reached for comment.
No one should be surprised that none of the candidates would come out with a definitive position. Agreeing to yield to LP’s demands, or pledging to force the company to employ environmental controls regardless of the cost or consequence, would be too risky in a short leadership campaign.
But it is surely one of those issues that is weighing heavily on all three candidates. Swan River is a strategically important riding for the NDP. It sits at the fulcrum of a gaggle of Tory strongholds to the south, and NDP orange-dog ridings to the north.
Deputy Premier Rosann Wowchuk has been hanging steadfastly to the riding since 1990 and while the last 10 years have been good to her, there have been close calls. In 1995, for example, Wowchuk won by only 36 votes.
Given the strategic importance of the riding, could the NDP risk LP shutting down one of the largest employers in the region on environmental principle? Conversely, would the party brush aside the environmental concerns to cave into the company’s take-it-or-leave-it demands?
Either way, this is one of those issues that ensures the winner of the leadership campaign will find out why they call the chair in the premier’s office the hot seat.