By ROSALYN ROY
– with files from René J. Roy
BURNT ISLANDS – After a hard storm flung pieces of the derelict fish plant at Jim Baggs’ house last fall, he was obliged to use his homeowner’s insurance to repair the damage.
“My insurance took care of it and the adjuster asked I who owned the building,” recounted Baggs in early February 2021.
Baggs didn’t have a ready answer, but directed the adjuster to the previous owner.
“As far as I’m concerned, Roland King was the owner when it was opened. He had all the say into it. Once it went down, nobody owns it,” said Baggs.
Burnt Islands is hardly alone when it comes to the problem of what to do with crumbling fish plants. It is a province-wide problem, one which usually boils down to money.
Decades after the plants have ceased operations, they remain eyesores on otherwise picturesque communities, deteriorate into environmental hazards and, in the case of Burnt Islands at least, pose physical danger to nearby residents, their own properties and vehicles.
Not being able to determine liability means homeowners like Baggs are usually obliged to use their own insurance, and that can drive up their premiums and become costly. The problem isn’t going away anytime soon either, and seems likely become even worse as the structure deteriorates further.
Some towns, like Port aux Basques, are able to maintain their former fish plants, providing industrial rental space or selling them outright. For smaller communities like Burnt Islands, that’s simply not feasible or affordable, but the risk to nearby residents and their personal property looms large. To date no injuries have been reported, but how long can that good fortune hold?
“When all of that old aluminum starts to peel off of that…,” said Baggs. “That can come blowing at you boy, let me tell you.”
Wallace Kinslow is a town councillor who is feeling just as frustrated.
“If the Town of Burnt Islands could have gotten rid of that, that would have been gone,” promised Kinslow.
The town has successfully removed other derelict structures, and asked a contractor to assess removing the old plant. But without knowing who the owner is means it can’t be torn down, even in the unlikely event it proves affordable.
The councilor has also asked (MHA) Andrew Parsons (Burgeo-La Poile) for help, providing Parsons with photos and what information he could find. He’s also called the provincial department responsible for the environment about a leaky tank.
“They did come and take that out of there,” said Kinslow.
But other than the tank there’s been no real progress towards finding a solution.
“We’re to a stand still,” admitted Kinslow.
The councilor says the town’s main concern is for the physical safety of those living close to the plant. But there are other concerns as well. Boxes and piles of old records, paperwork and binders get blown outside almost daily. Nearby residents have been doing what they can to clean it up, but it’s not their responsibility. Once the roof collapses, the mess will only get worse.
The responsibility for those records does not fall on the federal government either, clarified Kevin Guest, Communications Advisor for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
“While DFO cares very much about the privacy of Canadians, protection of the records, including the purchase slips, are the responsibility of the former fish plant owners. In the absence of the owners, licensing of fish plants is a provincial responsibility,” stated Guest via e-mail.
“The documents provided to Fisheries and Oceans Canada to review appear to be company information as well as Fisheries and Oceans Canada purchase slips.”
Purchase slips are provided to buyers to record the sale of most fish, which is a requirement under the Fisheries Act. Each purchase slip has three copies, one for DFO, one for the buyer, and one for the fish harvester. Buyers must maintain their own copies, but these records do not contain sensitive information that would require DFO to intercede.
The province has also stated repeatedly that it can’t afford to clean up all of these abandoned fish plants either. Add Parsons’ name to the list of those frustrated with the Burnt Islands fish plant.
“I’ve done everything I can do on it,” he said via telephone interview. “This is one of those evergreen issues. It comes up every once in a while when there’s a storm and something blows off it and hits somebody’s house.”
Parsons has helped deal with fish plant problems before, most notably in Rose Blanche-Harbour Le Cou and Isle aux Morts. The lawyer turned politician has also served as the province’s Attorney General and is well-versed in legislation surrounding liability and responsibility for derelict fish plants.
“It’s not easy,” admitted Parsons, who detailed the significant time and effort Isle aux Morts had to put in to resolve its fish plant problem.
After consulting his records, Parsons shared that he tried to help with the Burnt Islands fish plant in 2019 and in 2020. First among his recommendations was that the Town of Burnt Islands consult a lawyer to determine ownership and, if it’s a corporation, whether or not the company is still active. Until ownership is properly determined, not much can be done, including removal.
“It becomes an age-old thing. The legislation allows a community to take certain steps to demolish a building, but the problem is that you end up spending a ton of money,” sympathized Parsons. “Most of these towns don’t have the money to do this kind of work.”
Neither does the province. Even if it could dedicate the funds to demolish all of the old fish plants, such an undertaking would still have problems.
“Then it becomes a question of liability,” Parsons pointed out. “Government will not, nor should they in my opinion, make a blanket exception to do something, because there’s a million fish plants around the province that are dilapidated.”
Parsons also notes that even if an exception was made, that would just open the door to make the province and its taxpayers liable for similar problems that were, in fact, incurred privately.
“Where does it end?” he asked.
Some of the cost could potentially be offset via outstanding tax revenues. In May 2020, Council voted unanimously to write off $169,113.30 in back taxes still owing. Multiple questions about the situation were put to the Town of Burnt Islands, which chose to issue the following statement.
“Like many outport towns around the Province, Burnt Islands has a seemingly abandoned business related to the downturn in the fishery and it is quickly becoming a big eye sore for the Town. With reports of the old plant being raked over for anything of value, the building’s integrity is now posing a major safety issue for nearby residents. The Town has inquired several times through different government departments and our MHA on how to best handle the deteriorating property, but it is very apparent there is no easy and quick solution. The Town is led to believe that any attempt to rectify the situation is going to be a costly endeavour and one the Town cannot afford to take on. In the past the Town has dealt with much smaller properties in similar states in an effort to keep the town’s image as clean and welcoming as possible, but even these actions prove to be difficult for the Town to break even financially. It has been the council’s position not to place the entire burden on the town’s taxpayers, but feels it will take involvement from higher levels of government to actually see some movement. Burnt Islands is not unique here as our neighbouring towns are still having to manage similar situations. There are no easy solutions with such high-associated costs.”
Roland King is a former manager with the fish plant, but did not respond to inquiries as of press deadline. Both Eric King’s Fisheries Limited and Eric King and Sons Limited are currently listed as registered, active corporations in good standing under public provincial records.