Journal Pioneer - - FRONT PAGE -

It’s been a tough month for one of Canada’s wealth­i­est fam­i­lies. The Irv­ings of New Bruns­wick are fac­ing re­newed scru­tiny af­ter a ma­jor in­dus­trial ac­ci­dent at the Irv­ing Oil re­fin­ery in Saint John – one month ago Thurs­day – and three guilty pleas the fol­low­ing day from Irv­ing Pulp and Pa­per for pol­lut­ing the Saint John River. The sud­den spate of bad pub­lic­ity has drawn into sharp fo­cus the del­i­cate re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Irv­ing group of com­pa­nies and the 69,000 res­i­dents of Saint John.

The Irv­ings are one of the city’s largest em­ploy­ers, and the fam­ily’s pri­vately owned com­pa­nies are thought to be worth about $8 bil­lion.

No one was se­ri­ously hurt by the re­fin­ery blast, but res­i­dents were re­minded that it was the fourth ex­plo­sion at Canada’s largest oil re­fin­ery in 20 years.

As for the pulp and pa­per mill, owned by J.D. Irv­ing Ltd., it was hit this week with one of largest penal­ties ever im­posed in Canada for an en­vi­ron­men­tal vi­o­la­tion: $3.5 mil­lion. Fines for charges re­lated to pol­lut­ing were im­posed on the same mill in 1999, 2009 and 2010.

The city’s mayor, Don Dar­ling, has said Saint John’s large in­dus­trial base comes with risks, and he has called for a broader dis­cus­sion about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween res­i­dents and in­dus­try. He also drew at­ten­tion to an­other in­ci­dent in Jan­uary, when a bu­tane leak near the re­fin­ery forced the evac­u­a­tion of busi­nesses on at least two streets. “We have a very, very high con­cen­tra­tion of in­dus­try here in Saint John and I think we’ve gone through a se­ries of bu­tane leaks and ex­plo­sions and fires, and I think it has peo­ple very ner­vous and rightly so,” Dar­ling said shortly af­ter the lat­est ex­plo­sion. Irv­ing Oil spokes­woman Candice Ma­cLean said the com­pany, which em­ploys more than 2,200 peo­ple in the prov­ince, is a “safe, se­cure and re­li­able en­ergy sup­plier.”

“We are stead­fastly com­mit­ted to our em­ploy­ees and our cus­tomers and con­tinue to in­vest mil­lions of dol­lars each year to build stronger com­mu­ni­ties in our home prov­ince and across At­lantic Canada,” Ma­cLean said in a state­ment, adding that the com­pany gen­er­ates over 50 per cent of New Bruns­wick’s ex­port trade at $5 bil­lion an­nu­ally. Gor­don Dalzell, a clean-air ad­vo­cate in Saint John, said the Irv­ing group plays a crit­i­cally im­por­tant role in the New Bruns­wick econ­omy, but its eco­nomic might ex­acts a toll on the prov­ince.

“In a small city like Saint John, you quickly find out that many of your neigh­bours and their fam­ily mem­bers work for Irv­ing,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “Very few peo­ple will speak out ... to keep them ac­count­able or to crit­i­cize some of their prac­tices.”

Dalzell es­ti­mates the Irv­ings em­ploy about 35,000 peo­ple across the prov­ince.

“You can’t go too hard on these guys be­cause they play such an im­por­tant eco­nomic role,” said Dalzell, who has lived near the re­fin­ery since 1979. “But we do pay a price for that ... When you look at Saint John, it’s like a big in­dus­trial park.”

Gerry Lowe, a for­mer city coun­cil­lor who now rep­re­sents Saint John Har­bour in the pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­ture for the Lib­er­als, says deal­ing with the Irv­ing fam­ily can be in­tim­i­dat­ing – but that hasn’t stopped him from speak­ing out. “Peo­ple don’t know what is go­ing on be­cause they are a very pri­vate fam­ily,” said Lowe. “It cre­ates so many ru­mours.” As pri­vately owned com­pa­nies, the Irv­ings’ hold­ings are not sub­ject to the same scru­tiny as pub­licly held en­ter­prises. In fact, es­ti­mates about the fam­ily’s com­bined wealth are just guesses, based on a limited amount of pub­lic in­for­ma­tion.

When he was on coun­cil, Lowe fought against a tax deal aimed that capped the prop­erty tax on Irv­ing Oil’s Cana­port liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas plant. “Peo­ple were say­ing, ‘You shouldn’t do that, (Arthur Irv­ing) will move the LNG ter­mi­nal.” Lowe said. “That’s the first thing you’ll hear from peo­ple who are timid.”

Emma Sea­mone, spokes­woman for the Sierra Club Canada Foun­da­tion, said there isn’t enough scru­tiny of the Irv­ings’ busi­nesses be­cause the fam­ily owns all of the English­language daily news­pa­pers in the prov­ince.

“It’s re­ally hard to ques­tion Irv­ing in the me­dia and get that mes­sage out,” said Sea­mone, chair­woman of the At­lantic chap­ter’s ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee and a for­mer res­i­dent of Saint John.


A fire and plume of smoke rises from an Irv­ing Oil re­fin­ery in Saint John, N.B., last month.

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