Future looks rosy for Cloquet millConstruction is expected to start in April on a conversion at the Sappi mill in Cloquet that Project Director Mike Schultz said will add at least 20 years to the life of the mill.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
In approximately 14 months, Sappi Fine Paper in Cloquet will be selling its product to an entirely new market, to be turned into clothing and baby wipes in countries like China, India and Indonesia. Between then and now, there will be myriad changes at the Cloquet mill as Sappi Limited invests $170 million to convert the existing kraft pulp mill to production of chemical cellulose and upgrade machines used in the coated paper facility.
It is the largest investment Sappi has made in North America in some time, Project Director Mike Schultz told the Cloquet City Council on Tuesday, and the largest investment at the mill itself since the $500 million former Potlatch mill expansion here in the 1990s. Schultz was also heavily involved in that project.
“This project extends the life of the mill for 20-plus years,” Schultz told the council, adding that the market for paper pulp is shrinking and pointing out the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Sappi competitor New Page in Duluth. “This is a very good time to make this investment in Cloquet, before we found ourselves on the short end of the stick in panic mode.”
The pulp mill built in the ’90s is part of the reason Sappi chose to invest in Cloquet.
“Out of all the kraft pulp mills in the U.S., the Cloquet pulp mill is one of the newest,” a Sappi spokesperson explained in a previous Pine Journal interview. “Its state-of-the-art design and competitive low cost structure makes this mill unique. Its design is one which lends itself to being converted to chemical cellulose.”
In simple terms, the Cloquet mill will be converting wood to a purer form of cellulose fiber. That type of pulp can then be further processed into viscose staple fiber to make textiles like rayon, which can be made into cosmetics, pharmaceutical binders, diapers, cigarette filters, bandages, ingredients for ice cream and yogurt, and even the screens on cell phones and computers.
Sappi is already the world’s largest manufacturer of chemical cellulose out of its Saiccor mill in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, which underwent an expansion and modernization earlier this year. Following the conversion of Sappi’s Cloquet mill, Sappi’s total chemical cellulose capacity will grow to over 1.3 million metric tons per year.
When the changes are complete, Schultz said the mill will be able to produce either chemical cellulose or kraft pulp for paper production, should they chose to.
“There’s a lot of flexibility,” Schultz said, “which keeps us able to serve whatever market is the most profitable for the Cloquet mill.”
That will likely be the textile market.
As he touted the many benefits of producing chemical cellulose – better for the environment than cotton, higher demand than paper – Schultz told the councilors and two dozen residents in attendance Tuesday that “even Hollywood has it figured out.”
He showed a scene from the 1994 film “Disclosure,” when Donald Sutherland complimented Michael Douglas on his suit while the two were in an elevator, Sutherland even going so far as to touch the suit and comment on how good it felt.
“A little bit of viscose, that’s what makes the pants drape so well,” Douglas responded.
There were 74 million tons of textiles produced globally in 2010. Of that, 48 percent was polyester; 33 percent was cotton; 6 percent was polypropylene; 5 percent was nylon; 4 percent was chemical cellulose (rayon or viscose); 3 percent was acrylic and 1 percent was wool. Sappi expects rayon’s share to more than double in coming years.
The company does not anticipate the conversion will impact the number of jobs at the Cloquet mill, which currently totals approximately 780 employees.
Schultz said actual construction should begin as soon as April and be completed the following April and operating in May. From the outside, he explained, things won’t change much.
“It’s mostly internal changes that you won’t see from the road,” he said, noting that change in wood demand is expected. “The products leaving will still look pretty much the same too, still in bale form.”
Schultz said the construction effort is estimated at 300,000 man hours with a peak force of 400 workers.
“Do you expect most of those to be from the local labor force?” At-Large Councilor Barb Wyman asked after the presentation.
“Yes,” Schultz said. “I do know there’s a rumor floating around that we’ve already hired a general contractor, that’s not the case. What we are hiring – and we’re not prepared to comment because we’re in negotiations now – is a construction management outfit, to basically help with all our schedules, help track costs, not a general contractor. The construction management group that we will hire, even if they were a general contractor [as well], they would have to bid on the project just like anyone else. So there’s certainly room for anyone local to be involved.”
There is no change in the environmental impact of the mill either, Schultz said, noting that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved permits for the project last week. In fact, he said, the mill will likely become even more efficient than the 95 percent in terms of renewable energy it has already achieved.
Reporters Wendy Johnson, John Myers and Candace Renalls contributed to this story.