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Tuesday July 12, 2011 | 03:00 PM

How the federal government can better enforce the U.S. side of the U.S.-Canada Softwood Lumber Agreement, a key trade deal impacting Maine’s lumber industry, will be the topic later this afternoon of a meeting that includes Sen. Olympia Snowe, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and industry representatives.

The 2006 agreement is meant to ensure a level playing field between Canadian and American lumber companies. But U.S. industry representatives believe some Canadian companies are receiving subsidies from their government that give them an advantage when it comes to being able to sell cheap lumber.

Snowe and the industry representatives want to talk to Kirk about how the trade deal can be enforced more efficiently and allegations of unfair trade practices investigated and ruled on more quickly.

For instance, the industry believes it took far too long to look into allegations that British Columbia province-owned lumber has sold for 25 cents per cubic meter, compared to the U.S. price of $20 per cubic meter.

Snowe’s office says the U.S. softwood lumber industry alleged trade violations in that matter in mid-2007, but it wasn’t until fall 2010 until the complaint moved into what is known as the dispute resolution process and it wasn’t until January of this year that the U.S. Trade Representative’s office formally requested arbitration hearings with Canada to resolve the matter. The dispute is currently under review by the London Court of International Arbitration, Snowe’s office says.

Canada says the U.S. complaints about the British Columbia dispute are not valid, saying in January that the “low-value logs” were due to a mountain pine beetle infestation.

 “I am disappointed that the United States has rejected cooperative dialogue on this matter in favor of formal dispute settlement,” said Peter Van Loan’s Canada’s minister of international trade, in a January statement. “There is no justification for arbitration, and Canada will vigorously defend the interests of its softwood lumber industry.”

But Kirk said in January that, “Canada is providing an additional benefit to Canadian exporters of softwood lumber by selling timber harvested from public lands for prices below those provided for under the timber pricing system grandfathered under” the softwood lumber agreement. “By doing so, Canada is in breach of its commitments under the agreement,” Kirk said in January.

(UPDATED as of 8 p.m.: Snowe said in a statement after the meeting that: “Despite some recent steps to hold Canada accountable to the agreement, our government absolutely must do more to ensure that enforcement occurs promptly once allegations of trade violations are reported and USTR conducts its legal review.  Swift enforcement of the agreement will do much to level the playing field for forestry and logging industry employees in Maine, and the vital communities these jobs support.”

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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