FSC wood debacle lands city authority in court

A US timber company is suing a New Jersey city authority over its cancellation of a controversial order of FSC certified lumber for repair of its ocean-front boardwalks. In the latest development in this long-running debacle, which has exposed gaping weaknesses in the FSC’s Chain of Custody system, the Louis Grasmick Lumber company of Baltimore has said that it will sue the Ocean City authorities for $1.2 million.

Local environmental campaigners have long opposed the use by Ocean City of Amazonian ipe wood for the city boardwalk renovation project. For the last 10 years, the City has had a ‘no tropical hardwoods’ policy. The City’s Environmental Commission passed a unanimous decision to use alternatives to ipe for a major reenovation of the boardwalk decking, but the town’s Mayor, Sal Perillo, was lobbied by both the timber industry and Rainforest Alliance. As FSC-Watch has previously documented , the Alliance argued in favour of the use of FSC certified rainforest wood, leading Ocean City to believe that this was its view as an “international not-for-profit conservation organisation”, but failing to add that, as an ‘auditor’ under the FSC system it stood directly to gain financially from the certification of companies such as those that would provide Ocean City with FSC certified timber.

Despite repeated resolutions from the City Counil asking that Mayor Perillo negotiate a settlement and terminate the contract, Perillo decided to press ahead with the order; timber supplier Louis Grasmick was to provide the thousands of board feet of FSC certified wood by the contract delivery deadline of December 15th, 2007. But further trouble was on the horizon. The first and only shipment of ‘FSC timber’ that actually arrived in Ocean City by the delivery deadline for the project contained some wood labelled as FSC ‘Mixed Sources’ – meaning that, whereas the OC authorities had required that all the timber to be used was FSC certified, some non-certified wood had been admixed somewhere along the supply chain. The use of ‘Mixed Sources’ labelling of shipments of lumber containing both FSC certified wood with non-certified material is contrary to the spirit of FSC’s rules, as it is only intended for manufactured projects such as paper and fibreboard in which materials are inseparably combined – not for ‘bulking-up’ shipments of supposedly FSC certified lumber. The FSC Secretariat has so far failed to respond to requests for clarification on these rules.

Despite repeated requests, it has not been revealed to the OC authorities exactly how much of the ipe shipment was actually certified and how much not, nor where most of it is coming from. The importing agent claimed that, under FSC’s Chain of Custody system, the source of origin does not have to be made available to the end user. In a curious twist of self-certification, California-based FSC certifier Scientific Certification Systems Inc (SCS) was commissioned to ‘verify’ that all the Chain of Custody certificates required for the deal were valid and in place – even though SCS itself had themselves certified some of the potential suppliers of ipe and the associated chains of custody. Unsurprisingly, SCS concluded that all was in order, leaving the OC authorities still in the dark as to what they had actually been supplied with. Documents obtained by local campaigners under the Open Public Records Act revealed that the City had paid up to a 70% ‘premium’ in order to obtain what it thought would be FSC certified lumber.

By mid-January, with city workmen already ripping up some sections of the old boardwalk decking, there was still no sign of the timber needed to complete the job. Grasmick complained that low water levels in the Amazon had prevented the felled timber from getting to port. However, another explanation is that there was simply not enough FSC certified ipe required for the deal.

Investigations by FSC-Watch have found that one of the ipe Chain of Custody certificate-holders is closely associated with one of the most controversial of FSC’s rainforest certified logging operations, Jurua Florestal, which operates in the state of Para, Brazil. Jurua was first certified in 2002, but as FSC-Watch reported last September, the company’s operations were so unsustainable that their certifier – SCS – was forced to admit in the public summary certification report that “this farm will only have enough wood to supply the sawmill alone for a period of 10 to 15 years.”

By mid-January, less than 3% of the wood for the project had actually been delivered, and on the 17th of the month Ocean City’s councillors voted not to pay for any of the Grasmick wood, opting to use US-grown yellow pine instead.

It is this decision which Grasmick Lumber company is now challenging, and suing Ocean City for $1.2 million. As Rhonda VanWingerden, one of the leaders of the local Friends of the Rainforest, has said “This was all preventable. From the start of this entire process, every step of the way has been mishandled.” FSC-Watch believes that, rather than suing Ocean City, the lumber company’s owner, Louis Grasmick, might like to ask the FSC what has gone so badly wrong with its certification system that has let everybody down, leaving only a dismantled boardwalk, anxious boardwalk merchants, a disappointed City Council and public, and threats of legal action.

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