By Jeff Labine
THE TIMMINS DAILY PRESS
Published: Aug. 4, 2014

Iroquois Falls is losing its direct link to Lake Abitibi.

In a letter addressed to Iroquois Falls Mayor Gilles Forget last week, Resolute Forest Products president and chief executive Richard Garneau wrote the company will be closing the Abitibi trestle bridge effective Aug. 10.

The reason for the closure follows an engineering assessment of the bridge that found it would cost Resolute a “short-term significant investments to remain in service.”

Garneau wrote that since the company no longer needs the bridge, it would not go ahead with the repairs.

“As a responsible corporate citizen of the Town of Iroquois Falls and in a manner that is consistent with our values, which dictate us to put safety first, Resolute has no other choice at this time than to close access to the bridge,” Garneau stated in his letter.

“As you (the town) proposed, there should be volunteers monitoring the five tons maximum weight restriction, 24 hours per day, seven days a week. We appreciate your support in organizing the volunteer monitoring effort. We certainly do not want an incident to occur during this notice period. Resolute is committed to working with the town and other Ontario government officials to try and find a constructive way to minimize the impacts associated with the closure of the bridge for the community of Iroquois Falls.”

Resolute spokesman Xavier Van Chau said his company has had discussions about the future of that trestle bridge for the past three years. The final straw was when the engineering assessment came in at the end of July. He said once they had that report in, the company’s main concerns were safety and liability.

“Obviously, the company is well aware the interest the community has with the bridge and so we were trying to be as supportive of that as possible,” he told The Daily Press.

“We’ve had concerns around the safety of that bridge for some time. We had already reached out to public authorities both at the local and provincial levels to see if there was any interest in the bridge at that time because repair was required and obviously, there was citizen interest in maintaining the bridge. For us, it is kind of difficult to rationalize an investment in maintaining that bridge when we don’t use it ourselves.”

He said when Resolute approached the province a few years ago about transferring responsibility of the bridge, the discussions didn’t go very far. While the plan is to move ahead and close the bridge this Sunday, Van Chau expressed hope that an alternate solution could be reached.

Van Chau was unsure by what means the company was going to go close access to the bridge.

Meanwhile, Mayor Forget did’’t take the news well and believes the closure of the bridge, which was originally built in 1922, will devastate the town.

“It would certainly impact all of our commercial establishments,” he said. “This is crucial to the economy of our community. It became the playground for everyone accessing Lake Abitibi. There’s at least 100 camps all over the place, which means they have to go all way around by Cochrane just to cross the river. Everyone here crosses that bridge to go blueberry picking, fishing and hunting.”

The prospect of the bridge being closed is not new, Forget explained. Resolute raised the issue three years ago but the matter was dropped. But the situation changed following the recent engineering assessment of the bridge.

Forget suggested it would have cost the company up to $5 million to repair the bridge.

“We thought they were going to fix it,” he said. “I guess they are in a financial crunch here because the mill hasn’t made that much money in the last couple of years. They’re saying they aren’t making any money here so we’re certainly not going to spend money on a bridge.”

Forget said he has been speaking with Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle about the issue.

Forget said he has already had to close a bridge in the community because the town didn’t have the funds to cover the repairs.

Joey Festarini, a pipe fitter in Iroquois Falls, believes losing the bridge will mean that the town will lose everything to Cochrane. He said he would never have bought a cottage if it meant he had to travel two hours to get there instead of the 10-minute drive across the bridge.

“It’s going to affect the whole community,” he said. “We have our life savings invested in our cottages up there. We have a hotel here that’s usually full of contractors who work at the hydro dam and now with that being closed, we’re probably going to lose our motel because we won’t have people staying there anymore. If you take that bridge away, we can’t even access Crown land from here anymore. That’s the get away for Iroquois Falls. That’s our little piece of paradise.”

Festarini believed that without the bridge, the town won’t be able to keep the youth in the community.

Gravelle said as soon as he heard the news from Forget, he started working on getting the details about the situation. He mentioned that he discussed the matter not only with the mayor but with the town’s fire chief and chief adminstrator as well.

“Certainly, this is a significant challenge for the community,” said Festarini. “The mayor and the fire chief explained what impact this would have on the community and emergency response if there wasn’t continued access to use that bridge. We offered to provide assistance to him because I believe at that time he had not spoken to anyone at the Ministry of Transportation or the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry so we offered to help make those connections. As early as possible, we’re arranging a conference call within our ministry and with the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation. What we really need to do is gather some facts and see if there are any clear opportunities that exist to supply support.”

He added they will be inviting other ministries to get on board to help find a solution.