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Marathon has new hope to redevelop former pulp mill site

Queen's Park signals it's ready to lift environmental roadblocks to reopen brownfield to economic development

Redeveloping a once-contaminated former pulp plant has been a millstone around the Town of Marathon's neck for years.

But a new provincial government, intent on cutting red tape and regulations, has lifted hopes in the community on the north shore of Lake Superior that wants to start promoting its biggest economic development asset as a business park.

Potential environmental legacy issues have been a roadblock to any new development on the brownfield site.

But the municipality recently received correspondence from Melissa Thomson, assistant deputy minister at the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, indicating that the province favours putting the 100-acre, industrially zoned property back into use.

"I've been on this file as long as I've been in Marathon and I think this is the most movement we've seen in the last five years," said town CAO and economic development director Daryl Skworchinski.

"They've actually indicated in writing that they appreciate our position and are prepared to work on options for a solution."

The town's strategy for the former mill site, alongside Marathon's natural harbour, had largely fallen on deaf ears at Queen's Park for years.

The since-demolished Marathon Pulp property has been in limbo for a decade since bankruptcy forced the closure of the mill and the loss of 240 jobs in 2009.

What was left behind was a toxic mess.

After the mill's owner, Tembec, paid for the cleanup, the then-Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) placed stringent conditions prior for any sale process.

To the town's ongoing frustration, the MOECC basically had final say on its transfer to any potential new owner who had the means and deep pockets to clean up any long-term pollution problems, should it occur.

Any interested party was required to post millions of dollars in financial assurance up front, similar to a mine closure plan.

Those onerous conditions drove off prospective buyers who would be saddled with upfront capital requirements before their venture even got started.

Skworchinski said Mayor Rick Dumas and the council have made it clear that the town wants to find a solution at the bureaucratic level to close this file, in order to move forward and pursue opportunity.

If necessary, he said, they're prepared to pull out all the stops and go the political route.

"From our perspective, it's always been in the back of our mind but we've been handcuffed," said Skworchinski.

"I mean, what do you say to anybody when they ask about the property? Well, we don't own it, technically, but we're trying to get it."

Rather than be concerned with environmental issues that may or may not crop up, Skworchinski said the town would propose new development, and put the proper monitoring plans in place in the event something is discovered, and "then we proactively deal with it."

Skworchinski said this the first time they've received a written response that the province isn't opposed to that approach.

"Previously, it was a lot of lip service."

The town's intent is to parcel out the property, with flexible space, to fit the needs of any incoming business.

The municipality doesn't officially own the site but has an agreement with Tembec for the transfer of assets, which requires environment ministry approval.

"We, no doubt, have very active business interests with respect to the property," which Skworchinski couldn't disclose.

One he could discuss involves an aquaculture project in partnership with neighbouring Pic River First Nation, should the town acquire the land.

Skworchinski said other opportunities exist to do something on the value-added forest products side with the abundance of unused hardwood in the area.

"The natural resource sector is where our interest is for the site."