More than 1200 people turned out at the Heyfield Memorial Hall on Wednesday night for a community meeting to discuss the plight of Australian Sustainable Hardwoods.
The timber mill is the town’s major employer and its community came out in force to support its continued operation in the face of a crippling supply offer from VicForests which threatens its survival.
ASH previously advised its workforce of about 250 direct employees that the mill would be forced to close, with layoffs beginning in September, unless an improved supply deal could be negotiated in the coming weeks.
Closure talks are “on hold” during February following an ASH meeting with Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford and Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union representatives last week.
ASH presented a 16-page proposal to transition the industry long-term, which would require an estimated $40 million re-tooling overhaul of the mill, but remains at risk if it cannot secure short-term supply over the next five years.
Hosted by Wellington Shire Council mayor Carolyn Crossley, the meeting’s speakers included State Member for Eastern Victoria Harriet Shing, Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester, State Member for Gippsland East Tim Bull, CFMEU national president Jane Calvert and ASH chief Vince Hurley.
Mr Hurley said ASH was “overwhelmed” by the community’s support for the mill.
“I was overwhelmed at the level of support for our mill. We do pride ourselves in being a good employer, having sustainable practices and being a good member of the local community,” Mr Hurley said.
“I am proud of the mill, the staff and the community and I do hope that a solution is found in the next four weeks.”
Mr Hurley said midway through last year VicForests had indicated a healthy supply of timber was available from its Central Highlands 1939 regrowth area, and was shocked by the new reduced offer from July 2017. ASH has indicated it would require a minimum of 130,000 cubic metres per annum to remain viable, but was only offered 80,000 for the next year and 60,000 for the two years following.
“As the CEO of ASH it has been frustrating not being able to plan for the long term and I was shocked when told how little logs VicForests was prepared to provide us in the coming three years,” Mr Hurley said.
“A little over six months ago I was informed by VicForests that they had sufficient supply of suitable sawlogs available for 10 to 15 years. I have been in this industry for over 30 years and for VicForests to turn around and say the best they can do is less than half of our current contracted volume over three years, just six months later, doesn’t make any sense at all.
“The fact is that the commercial size of our operation simply does not work with half the contracted volume.”
VicForests said it was continuing discussions with ASH regarding a future sales agreement.
“VicForests has notified ASH that it can continue to supply timber to the Heyfield mill but not at the same levels as in the current agreement,” a spokesperson said.
“Improved modelling of the available future timber resources shows the level of supply of ash timber needs to be reduced from the current levels.
“VicForests will continue to meet its contractual obligations with all of our contractors and customers.” A motion put to the floor at the meeting calling on Premier Daniel Andrews to protect the mill and its workers was unanimously supported.
The ASH board will reconvene early next month to make a decision on the mill’s future.