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Kelowna: Ashland plant closure means job losses

There was almost a collective sigh of relief Tuesday when Ashland Chemicals manager Kelly Brown told his staff of 32 they would close the doors for good.

Business globally has not been good since 2008 and Ashland International had identified that the Canadian customer base was not even keeping pace with the lower performance.

All of this was before Kelowna Pacific Railway collapsed, spiking the means of importing the chemicals from Texas needed to make their resins and gelcoats.

"Basically, we were suffering and just trying to eke out a living here," said Brown.

He was in Ontario on vacation last July when he learned KPR had gone into receivership, stopping rail service in large part because their financial problems were just too great to maintain the rail line itself. The train was running slower and slower, making it less and less useful to customers, not to mention increasing the risk it would crash with a load of Ashland's chemicals.

The Lac-Mégantic derailment happened the next day. A 74-car freight train carrying crude oil exploded in the small Quebec town, blowing up 30 buildings and killing 47 people.

That was when Brown says he knew it was over.

"It was like being told your mother is dying," he said.

The last half year has been a perpetual exercise in grasping at faint straws of hope, knowing full well that jobs would be lost, including his own.

"I tried to work with the shippers that were on the line here in Kelowna. There wasn't a lot of high interest," he said. "If you're just selling metal parts, just to truck it up to Kamloops is not a big deal."

As of close of business Wednesday, CN Rail had not received a business proposal from the one proponent who has expressed interest in reopening the line.

CN is working with the individual and there is no date set for when a proposal would need to be filed by, according to Emily Hamer, CN public and government affairs.

Should this new operator fail to materialize, however, the federal, provincial and municipal governments will each have 30 days, in succession, to purchase the line for public use.

Employees at Ashland, meanwhile, began the process of beginning anew Wednesday.

"Ashland has been very good to us," said Brown, noting severance packages and support services have been provided so the employees can find new work.

Concerns raised by Ashland's lawyers that hundreds of jobs could be lost in surrounding businesses because the company has pulled out of the region are likely for naught.

Brown said the local Ashland plant, in fact, sold to suppliers who would then turn around and sell to local customers.

Effectively, the major change will be that their supplies now come from a different state, he said.

jsmith@kelownacapnews.com

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