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New Evaporators, Improved Markets and New Owners Put Marathon on the Brink of Brighter Days


September 1, 2000
By Pulp & Paper Canada

After weathering the storm of bad pulp markets the last few years, the bleached softwood kraft pulp mill in Marathon, ON, enters the dawn of what promises to be a brighter era under new owners. Just b…

After weathering the storm of bad pulp markets the last few years, the bleached softwood kraft pulp mill in Marathon, ON, enters the dawn of what promises to be a brighter era under new owners. Just before Christmas 1999 it was announced that Tembec and Kruger had agreed to a joint-venture partnership in which they acquired all of the shares of Fort James-Marathon, Ltd. from Fort James Corporation for $100 million. The sale was completed on January 31, 2000.

As prices rise and optimism grows among pulp makers — with the consensus being that there is the strong possibility the upturn can be sustained — many mills are excited over the potential. After all, it’s been a long time coming. Mills suffering through the wretched market did what they could to stay alive and competitive — reducing manpower, increasing efficiencies.

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Those that could kept their capital programs intact although many plans had to be pared down or cancelled altogether. The Marathon mill was able to complete a $40-million replacement of its evaporators in 1997. With a peak capacity of 580 tonnes per day (t/d) and an average of 520 t/d, the mill produces about 190 000 t/y based on a 365-d/y operation. It is basically one product but with a range of customers’ special specifications.

The Ahlstrom six-effect falling film evaporators replaced two sets of Goslin evaporators that had gone past the end of their expected life. The major benefit is an improved steam economy (i.e., pounds of water evaporated by a pound of steam). The mill went from a 4.0 steam economy to 5.3, a 30% improvement. No mill downtime was needed when the evaporator project was being done. Operators are very happy with the new system and with the support Ahlstrom has given.

Having idled its chip plant a few years ago, the mill now uses 100% sawmill residues from a number of sawmills in a 200-mile radius of Marathon. Fort James-Marathon, Ltd. is the license holder under the Big Pic Sustainable Forest Agreement but Buchanan Forest Products manages the license for the mill and passes the logs through its Dubreuilville, ON, sawmill. Chips from this sawmill account for about 50% of the mill’s fibre; the rest is purchased from other area sawmills.

About 70% comes in by truck, the rest by rail. The mill has a new rail unloading system. Open top cars are used and a backhoe vehicle scoops the chips onto a conveyor belt for transport to the chip pile.

The mill operates eight batch digesters with an average spacing between fills of 20 minutes. Each cook takes about 2.5 h. The digesters were redone in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Former Fibre Unit Leader Garnet Torgunrud (who now works for Tembec International Sales in Toronto, ON) said that virtually all parts of the mill’s kraft pulping process could be considered “standard.”

After passing through the knotters, the pulp enters the brownstock washers. In 1990 the mill tried pressure washers but these generated too much foam and had structural problems. They were retrofitted to vacuum washers by IMPCO in the early 1990s and have had no problems since. They are still like new, Torgunrud added, and actually have excess capacity.

The Marathon mill claims to be the first in Ontario to go to 100% chlorine dioxide substitution, in 1990-91. The mill’s ERCO ClO2 generator can be “pushed” to 25 t/d. Recently, the mill has done some work with additives and has incorporated enzyme technology. Trials with magnesium sulphate were also done. There are five bleached pulp cleaners; two were added in the 1990s to allow the mill to move into more demanding markets.

The pulp is bleached to 91 ISO but reversion on the machine brings it back to 90, the level at which it is shipped.

With the improvements to the recovery island, the pulp dryer is now the mill’s bottleneck. It is the oldest part of the mill, using 1950s/60s technology. It runs well, but has limitations.

There is a single fold and wrap line. The mill can store up to 6000 t on-site and will rent off-site warehouse space at its customers if needed.

The power island is an area of opportunity. A decision was made three years ago not to rebuild the three turbo-generators; the decision was based on the comparative prices of Bunker C oil and hydro power. It was felt it would be cheaper to purchase hydro than to burn Bunker C to generate steam. However, the situation has since changed and the mill will rebuild two of its turbines. With one running, the mill will be able to produce 30% of its electrical needs. With the other two online, it can generate 85% of its electrical needs. The balance will come from Ontario Hydro. Another advantage of being self-sufficient in power is that the area where the mill is located on the eastern shore of Lake Superior is very susceptible to severe electrical storms and, therefore, power outages. The three turbines can keep essential services going. The mill also has two Zurn package boilers, capable of producing 150 000 lb/h of steam each.

The evaporators empty into two concentrators that feed the black liquor recovery boiler. The boiler was installed in 1979 and rebuilt in 1991. The mill needed to improve its particulate and TRS emissions. The electrostatic precipitator was upgraded at the same time.

Air emissions are in “good shape,” Torgenrud added, because as part of the evaporator project, the mill commissioned a condensate stripper which significantly reduced TRS emissions. The mill has done a lot of work to reduce sulphur-based emissions. Besides the work described, the smelt dissolver/scrubber off the recovery boiler was also rebuilt.

The mill has also just commissioned a new boiler feedwater system including a combination softener/reverse osmosis system. Benefits should include prolonged boiler life, reduced operating costs and increased process reliability.

The kiln/recaust area was installed in 1987. It was designed “well over size,” noted Torgunrud because at the time, there was talk of the mill increasing its production to 1000 t/d.

“We are now in a position, both with liquid and air emissions, where we meet provincial regulations (stricter than federal laws) and Cluster Rules (US),” Torgunrud said.

A Fisher Controls’ ProVox distributed control system was installed in 1996. It controls virtually the whole mill save the pulp machine — digester, bleachery, recaust, recovery, evaporators, power boiler and kiln. Functions available include scheduling and steam smoothing.

The mill also has a couple of sideline businesses. It produces tall oil by skimming the soap off the black liquor. It is used as a reactant in the petrochemical industry. A smaller sideline is turpentine, which is sold and shipped to Florida. A new turpentine recovery system was installed in 1997.

For a 55-year-old kraft mill, cleanliness is remarkable. There is a thorough maintenance productivity plan in effect, which includes vibration analysis, precision (balancing and alignment) and preventive maintenance. “Competitive” work practices have been part of the labor contract for the last six years.

Although the workforce has dropped from 430 people in 1990 to 300 today, Torgunrud said the relationship between management and union has remained strong. Most of the losses were achieved through attrition. Obviously, for production, this has meant a strong decrease in the manhour/tonne figure. Besides the improvements in technology and subsequent increases in equipment reliability, Torgunrud said that programs to increase personal efficiency have been instituted. The mill has been ISO 9000 certified for some time.

Market agreements

Marathon’s kraft has a strong base in towel and tissue markets. “We have a good quality product,” Torgunrud said. “We also have good and long-term relationships with most of our customers. We’ve installed a lot of procedures to improve quality over the last few years.”

As part of the sale terms with Tembec/Kruger, the parties have signed a three-year renewable pulp supply agreement to supply Fort James’ non-integrated operations. Tembec will market the balance of production. “This acquisition represents a good stra
tegic fit with Tembec’s core market pulp business,” Terrence Kavanagh, president, Tembec Pulp Group, said. This is the latest in a remarkable string of acquisitions for Tembec: Matane, QC (from Donohue), Malette, Pine Falls, Spruce Falls, Atholville, NB, now AV Cell (from Fraser), Crestbrook Forest products and Tartas, France.

Built in 1945 as Marathon Paper Company (although the mill has never made a single sheet of paper), the mill became part of American Can until James River purchased it in 1983. Torgunrud said that James River brought a new attitude to the mill with a desire to make it competitive and profitable again. American Can had lost interest in the mill and capital had dried up.

The purchase of the mill by Tembec and Kruger has breathed new life and brought a renewed focus and enthusiasm into the Marathon operation. The new owners have brought their collective background, experience, knowledge and market strength to the table and have worked with local Marathon management to further reduce operating costs and rationalize the Marathon customer mix. Marathon president Bob Gregor said, “The purchase of the mill was the best thing that could have happened at this point as the mill is now owned by companies that are committed to Marathon’s future in the market pulp business. Support and assistance from the new owners and personnel at other kraft mills within the family has been extraordinary from the sale date forward.”

Before the takeover, Torgunrud said that as the capital picture improves, plans call for debottlenecking the pulp machine. With the availability of fibre and the increased process efficiency, it is possible to increase production to 580 t/d, a 12% jump. This would mean increasing drying capacity and some pumping changes.


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