Third time lucky: That's the feeling in the air in Atholville, NB, as the former Fraser pulp mill re-opened in spring 1998 under the AV Cell name. AV Cell is a joint venture between Tembec (famed for rescuing "lost causes" and making them successful) and the Aditya Birla Group. Based in India, Birla is the world's largest producer of viscose staple fibre, used to make rayon for clothing. It is also the world's largest producer of palm oil. It has 65 manufacturing units spread across India, Thailand, Indonesia and other countries in the region.
Opened in 1930 as part of Fraser, the Atholville mill has had some rough times over the last 15 years. Built as an ammonia sulphite market pulp mill, Fraser spent $170 million in the early 1980s converting the pulping process to magnesium bisulphite to match its sister mill in Edmundston, NB (Pulp & Paper Canada, April 1984, November 1987). Soon after the start-up, the bottom fell out of the pulp market. In 1987, Fraser set up the mill as a separate company, Atholville Pulp, and the mill even managed to make a bit of money that year. It enjoyed one of its best years in 1989. However, the good times did not last long and the mill closed in 1991.
Fraser sold the mill to Repap in 1994. Repap wanted to convert the mill to produce its alcohol pulp (Pulp & Paper Canada, December 1987). However, poor markets and the lack of money put an end to these plans. After making magnesium bisulphite hardwood pulp for about six months, Repap shut the mill in 1996.
Forward to 1998: Tembec had just bought the Pine Falls Paper mill in Manitoba. At the same time, it was taking a fresh look at its original business, dissolving and specialty pulp. One of its largest customers for these products had been the Birla group. Birla had been interested in a joint venture with Tembec for a number of years, having been a Tembec client for 20 years. Previous attempts at a partnership had not been successful but when the Atholville mill became available, Tembec president Frank Dottori contacted Birla and asked if they were still interested and prepared to look at long-term supply agreements. When Birla indicated its interest, the game was on.
In February 1998 the deal with Repap and the government of New Brunswick was reached and the mill began production of paper-grade magnesium bisulphite pulp in May 1998, switching to dissolving pulp in July. The official opening of the mill under the AV Cell name was held in August, the same day the first shipment of dissolving pulp left the port of Saint John, NB, for India.
Birla has agreed to purchase the mill's entire production, the price per tonne based on quality. In August and September 1998, the mill had a positive cash flow and Dottori is very optimistic about the mill's prospects in 1999 despite low pulp prices. Birla has just opened a new facility in India that will need 60 000 tonnes per year (t/y). Peak quality levels have not been reached, but Alan Ritchie, executive vice-president and COO of the mill, says it is just a matter of time before the highest quality level is reached. As he said, "Dissolving pulp is a value-added product so you have to have the quality to get the price."
Although the company will spend about $30 million in the first year to cover start-up costs and needed modernization projects, Ritchie said the mill was in good shape when Tembec walked in. A caretaker staff had taken care of the rotating equipment, but there were a lot of plugged lines. This was due to the sudden closure of the mill by Repap, Ritchie explained. The mill had not been mothballed "properly". "Generally, though, it was pretty good," he added. "We had it going pretty fast. We had it up to capacity (300 t/d) as market pulp in two months."
The mill is now making 255 t/d of dissolving pulp with the total "nudging up" every month. Ritchie expects that by June 1999, the mill will be at 100% capacity.
The mill employs 230 people, many of whom have returned home from mills across the country when Atholville re-opened. About 80 to 85% of the people hired were ex-Fraser employees. Ritchie himself was vice-president, operations, for Fraser Inc. and oversaw the modernization at Atholville in the 1980s. Most recently he was working at SNC-Lavalin when Tembec came calling and asked him to head the Atholville operation. It was almost a Rip van Winkle experience for Ritchie when he returned. He said it was like everyone and everything had been asleep for 10 years. "It was all the same people."
The biggest step for all was the re-education needed to make dissolving pulp. "You need more consistency and the quality control standards are much more stringent," Ritchie said. What are the differences between paper-grade and dissolving pulp? The quick answer is that they are the same processes but dissolving uses higher pressure, higher temperature and higher concentrations of sulphur dioxide. Of course, the answer is not so simple.
Tembec's technical vice-president Jean-Marie Hay explained what had to be done. "You need to cook at a lower pH to dissolve all the hemicellulose. Therefore, you need more free SO2 in the digester. You have to keep it free in the accumulator."
To do this, the mill added an extra stage to the gas relief system to handle all the gas and to drop the pressure at the end of the cook to atmospheric pressure. Also, Hay added, "You have to get the recovery acid from sulphur burning to get the free SO2. We reinforced the raw acid tank to accept high pressures to keep the SO2 in solution."
The digester piping was modified to recover the SO2 left after the cook. This involved installing a venting system to recover the gas left in the pulp. During the cook, the pH is much lower: about 2.2 instead of 3.5. It's brought down with the extra SO2. However, the operators must be able to manipulate the gas in the process without losing much because of the costs involved.
In bleaching, the mill converted an oxygen tower to an extraction tower. It operates at 100°C in the bottom to further remove the balance of the hemicellulose left in the pulp. The bleaching sequence was changed from ODEopD to EDEH (H=hypo). The hypo is needed to control viscosity, Hay said.
Controlling the inorganics -- calcium, silica, iron -- was another challenge for the mill. The inorganics come from the mill's wod as well as the mill's fresh water supply, which is very hard. The mill also lowered the pH in the pulp cleaning system, from 5.0 to 3.5 to stabilize the minerals.
The sheet size was changed from a square 80 by 80 cm sheet to a 70 by 80 cm sheet to suit customer needs. A brown kraft wrapper is used because a strong wrapper is needed to prevent contamination of the pulp during shipping.
The most recent change has been with the furnish. Starting on 100% softwood chips, AV Cell has recently added hardwood to the mix but Ritchie expects no problems with the changeover.
The changes, especially the added piping and other equipment required to capture the gases, has made the mill very efficient and has also helped its environmental cause. The mill is now virtually odorless. Air emissions have been reduced by 67%, Ritchie estimated. Effluent treatment has not been a problem as Repap added a secondary treatment system to meet the 1995 federal regulations.
AV Cell has a three-part short- and long-term capital budget plan. As it is basically a 1970/1980 vintage mill, the distributed control system and programmable logic controllers must be updated over a three- to five-year span. Large spares, pertinent to the long-term operation of the mill, will be purchased over the next two years. Equipment such as scrubbers to control the inorganics to within viscose grade specifications will be installed. Coupled with the capital program will be an aggressive cost reduction program. The goal is to make AV Cell one of the world's lowest cost producers of dissolving grade pulp.
AV Cell has worked diligently with the local First Nations peoples. A joint committee including AV Cell's timber representatives and the Listuguj Mi'gmaq First Nations Government has been formed to discuss any concerns.
According to Richard Foucault, manager, mill operations, one of the reasons for AV Cell's success lies in the strength and depth of its manpower. "We have a very strong union/management relationship, which has one common goal: a successful mill operation. The unionized personnel know what it is like to be out of work and are making an extra effort to make the mill profitable. The management team is extremely dedicated and is as strong as any Canadian pulp and paper industry management team. We have what Tembec had in 1974 (when management and employees re-opened the closed mill in Temiscaming, QC) and we don't want to lose the energy or the focus."
The third time around may be the charm for Atholville, but someone else may say that the mill has two strikes and this is its last chance. But no one went into this blind; the principals knew the odds. As Ritchie said, as a paper-grade market pulp mill, Atholville could not make it at today's pulp prices. The mill is too small. Dissolving pulp is the only hope. There is still work required, especially more automation and better control of the process. However, considering the history of other mills that Tembec has taken an interest in, chances are that even if Atholville does not hit a home run, it will at least get on base. P&PC