I moved back to Sarnia in 1973 to help my dad run his appliance, TV and furniture business. Polymer, Dupont and Union Carbide had just announced a $750 million-dollar project that would change Sarnia forever. It was called Petrosar, and as we all know that has now morphed into NOVA Chemicals. I remember those years of the Petrosar construction (74 -78) and the project’s subsequent coming on line very well. Business was, as my brother Mark loved to say, “Rockin’ and rollin’.”
On Dec 8th, NOVA Chemicals held a press conference to announce two new NOVA projects which would see a $2 + billion-dollar investment in our community - something that’s been in the wind for several years now. I’m sure it was a huge relief for everybody in Sarnia to hear that we had finally been given the nod for this.
The biggest obstacle I’d been hearing about over the years was the cost of power. The debt-free state of Texas with its Heritage Foundation was ready to give NOVA an impressive economic incentive to help overcome their electricity costs and that put Texas seriously in the running. So was Louisiana. Many people here feared that we would lose out after we got passed over in 2013. In order to help bring this project and its jobs to Sarnia, it was announced by the Ontario Government’s Minister of Economic Growth and Development, Brad Duguid, that the Province would be adding $100 million to the kitty over the next ten years. Given that NOVA pays $40 million in Ontario income taxes annually and that these two projects will double NOVA’s output and possibly their profits, the math suggests that Ontario will get their investment back in spades.
I’d say that’s a good deal for both sides: Ontario gets a major investment in the province and the resulting employed tax payers and increased corporate profits, while NOVA gets $100 million to overcome the ridiculous cost of our electricity. I’d also heard that other factors contributed to our advantage. Among them, the price of the Canadian dollar and the fact that we don’t have hurricanes (yet) and the Gulf of Mexico does. I am sure there is a great fear of the bad weather shutdowns amongst those with money to invest who - even though they may say that the frequency and ferocity of hurricanes in recent years are not due to climate change but rather, bad luck, - will still say, “but just in case the luck doesn’t change, let’s build this puppy well above sea level in a place where they don’t get hurricanes… yet.”
I was very impressed with Mr. Naushad Jamani, the Senior VP of NOVA Chemicals, Canada. He’s been with NOVA for 38 years; straight out of Waterloo University. He headed up the NOVA announcement team and I got the feeling from watching him and the members of his group that this company has some seriously good leadership. They’d need that to convince the NOVA owners and investors in Dubai that Canada was the best place to build this plant. They would need to have a lot of faith in people like Mr. Jamani and his team being able to shoulder the responsibility of spending over two billion of their dollars and giving them the best value for it.
One guy at the press conference asked me, “Do you know how hard it is to spend two billion dollars in just four years?”
I told him, “Kathleen Wynne could easily do that in a month.”
After Mr. Jamani made the announcement and Mr. Duguid had made his statements, the press was invited to ask questions. Now let me first say that what I saw was an announcement about an investment in our country, our province and especially, our community that is a game-changing piece of good news for all of us. NOVA says, “We estimate our projects will result in significant construction employment opportunities - 800 to 1,000 at peak. Initial estimates are for several million construction labour hours, with the majority sourced from the local area.”
After these construction projects come on line, there will be 150 “high-paying” jobs at NOVA and another 750 indirect full-time jobs in Sarnia/Lambton. And don’t forget the money that will be spent in our community with more people buying houses, cars, boats, furniture, appliances, TVs, groceries, Sting tickets, eating in restaurants, banking and paying municipal taxes which could reduce our tax bill… right? Okay… I can dream, can’t I?
All in all, this looks like a good deal for everybody… a true win-win situation. So, you can imagine my surprise when the reporter from Global asks her question of Mr. Duguid, and it went something like, “Why is the Ontario government giving $100 million dollars to a company that is under investigation for environmental issues?”
Mr. Duguid was ready for the question and as part of his reply, stated that, “This agreement will not go forward if the company is not in compliance with our health and safety standards.”
But the Global reporter isn’t buying that. She goes on to say there had been a benzyne leak that went unreported involving 10 to 30 workers and that some of them had gone to the hospital. She added that she found that out from employees, not from the company; as if to imply that the company was hiding something. Regional Manufacturing director Tom Thompson replied that, “No workers were sent to the hospital.” There had been an incident and trace levels had been detected during a shutdown but NOVA had defined safety procedures to deal with the incident and it got handled.
Sure, there are environmental issues in the Chemical Valley and if you are one of the 57 companies within 25 kilometers of Sarnia that are registered with the Canadian and US governments because they deal with toxic chemicals, you must comply with and adhere to those standards - which incidentally, are the highest in the world. Do you think NOVA’s investors would take a 2-billion-dollar chance on the fact that they could violate our environment and not come under the gun for it? Basically, you are under investigation all the time in this business. That is the nature of the beast.
Former Polymer president Ralph once told me that the biggest expense in their industry was employee turnover. That’s because it cost so much to get a person trained to do a job properly in what is a very high-tech industry that gets more high-tech every day. It has been my observation that employee turnover is not an issue in the Chemical Valley because it is a great place to work. You can make good money and live very well in this community on that money… much better than you ever could in say… Toronto, London or Hamilton.
Look at how closely the companies in the Valley work with Lambton College and UWO to develop technologies and personnel for these companies that deal with the issues they face in the local environment as well as world markets. Do you ever see or hear anything like that on Global? I can’t say for sure… I hardly ever watch Global.
I remember back in the nineties when Germany’s Bayer Corp bought the rubber division of NOVA. They had a bunch of guys from Germany living here and they all thought they’d died and gone to Heaven. I did some business with them and they would tell me things like, “You people are so lucky to live here. Such a beautiful lake and you live so close to so many wonderful things that you can do for such reasonable prices.”
One guy came into my store to say goodbye after he was transferred back to Germany. He hated to leave Sarnia because working conditions and the lifestyle he was returning to in Germany, were not nearly as nice as we have here. We’d had a few laughs over the fact that I told him it looked like Germany had finally won World War 2. “You can’t beat us on the battlefield so you just decided to buy us.”
After the press conference, we were loaded onto a bus and taken out to see the site of the new expansion. I was talking to Dave Dentinger of Blackburn radio and asked him, “Why the hell would Global TV come to an event like this and ask a question like that?”
He told me, “In light of their recent investigative report on the Chemical Valley’s environmental impact, I don’t think they came down here to tout the economic benefits of the investment.”
I found myself imagining that the reporter from Global got an order from her boss to go down to the NOVA press conference and try to find something to make big business and the government look like bad guys so, there was no way she was coming back with a headline that read how we had just landed a very competitive, major investment for our country, our province and one of the communities in our province that has to deal with some very tricky environmental issues and one of the reasons the company got that investment is that they are on top of those environmental issues and very safety conscious.
Given today’s tendency for negative headlines, that would be a positively, sensational story as well and fortunately for all of us here in Sarnia… it’s the truth.