BY WENDY ELLIOTT
Kings County Advertiser/Register
Way back during the 1978 provincial election, both the NDP and the Tories made some noise about greater benefits should there be further processing of the gypsum deposits found in West Hants. Tory Ron Russell won that election, but the raw ingredients kept moving out of Hantsport.
When the news broke recently the Canadian Gypsum Company’s Windsor plant was being mothballed, I dug out a two-part story I wrote 32 years ago about the operation most folks here call Fundy Gypsum. My research was an introduction to multinational corporations and our national propensity to ship raw ingredients somewhere else. Inflation, high-energy costs and an old, but pre-existing, wallboard plant in New Brunswick were all blamed for the lack of processing locally, but nobody seriously questioned the practice.
In 1978, there were 160 workers at Fundy Gypsum. Thirty years before that, there were 400 handling the same amount of ore. When the quarrying stops at the end of this month, about 45 people will be laid off.
The Gypsum Transportation Co. that ships ore to New England used to have five ships and almost 200 crewmembers. They used to pride themselves on hiring Canadian sailors, but that stopped.
The late Gwen Shand told me the first processor of gypsum was a Richard Cunningham, beginning in 1815, but the Acadians had first located the deposits. For almost 200 years, gypsum was not classified as a mineral or a Crown Asset by the N.S. government.
Even back in the ‘70s, there wasn’t any legislation protecting the environment around open pit quarries. Beginning in 1965, Fundy Gypsum voluntarily started bulldozing in the holes.
This month’s mothballing does mean a controversial expansion of the Miller's Creek Quarry is highly unlikely anytime soon.
I remember former Windsor town councillor Stewart Johnson, who managed the now defunct Domtar plant on O’Brien St., calling gypsum ‘good dust.’ He contended its benefit as a fertilizer made for lush vegetation in east end Windsor. Most residents simply wanted the dust off their windows.
The non-metallic, soft rock is a part of a highly monopolized industry, economist Maurice Tugwell pointed out last week. In 1978, when he taught at Acadia University, he had explained to me just what a resource rich hinterland Canada is.
It’s been nearly three years since the U.S. housing market began collapsing, leaving slashed home prices, untenable mortgages and evicted families in its wake. In 2009, for example, the Charles County Sheriff's Office in California evicted 1,993 households. Last year, the number jumped to 2,510. Predictions indicate 2011 could be even worse. I hear professors at state universities in California haven’t been paid for three months.
Property Magazine says, right now in the United States, there are about 2.1 million empty homes for sale out of 7.4 million residences, based on the latest report from the Census Bureau.
So, it’s no wonder Mike Bishop, who runs the Windsor-area quarries, has said operations are “idling... indefinitely,” until the markets return. Perhaps there will be a day when someone in Chicago signals another start up.
Meanwhile, Hantsport Mayor Wayne Folker remains optimistic ships will be sailing on the tide from his town again, and no wonder. Fundy Gypsum did have a previous layoff in 2008. The infrastructure is there.
As the first wave of baby boomers hits pensionable age, I hope there won’t be a glut of housing in the Canadian market. Lynn Uzans pointed out that possibility at the hearing on developing Greenwich farmland. Seniors are already proving they want to move into the kind of ample apartments going up in Woodman Grove in Wolfville. Six buildings are planned. All I know is, predicting the housing market on this continent is going to be challenging.