Cloquet mill is breaking new groundThere’s been a paper mill on the same site on the banks of the St. Louis River in Cloquet for more than 110 years. What began as Northwest Paper was purchased by Potlatch and then, more recently, by Sappi Fine Paper. Now, a massive investment in new technology by Sappi should keep a mill operating in Cloquet for years to come.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
During last Friday's ground breaking for the conversion project at Cloquet’s Sappi Fine Paper mill, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar told the story of her very first visit to Cloquet, when she was in junior high. The younger Klobuchar and her father headed out on a bike ride from Plymouth, Minn., with the wind at their backs, and pedaled 140 miles in one day.
“Right outside this mill is where I pretended to fall down so we could stop,” she said.
There’s been a paper mill on the same site on the banks of the St. Louis River in Cloquet for more than 110 years. What began as Northwest Paper was purchased by Potlatch and then, more recently, by Sappi Fine Paper. Now, a massive investment in new technology by Sappi should keep a mill operating in Cloquet for years to come.
But the mill will be making more than paper. Plans were announced last November to convert the existing kraft pulp mill from making pulp to production of chemical cellulose, a purer form of cellulose which can be made into a fabric for clothing, wet wipes and other consumer products.
Dignitaries were out in force Friday morning for the official groundbreaking as everyone from Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to Sappi North America President and CEO Mark Gardner spoke about the importance of the $170 million project.
“The mill has provided generations of families a good living here in Cloquet,” Ahlgren said. “My mother worked here, my uncles and my cousins worked here. I worked here as a vacation replacement. … This is a tremendous investment, and it ensures a strong future for the company, its employees, their families and our community.
“On behalf of the people of Cloquet, we thank you for your vision and your commitment to our community,” he added.
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.
The Cloquet project is the largest investment Sappi has made in North America in some time, and the largest investment at the mill itself since the $500 million former Potlatch mill expansion here in the 1990s.
The relatively newly built pulp mill is part of the reason Sappi chose to invest in Cloquet.
“This is the most modern hardwood craft mill in the United States,” Gardner said. “And the particular way this pulp mill was designed will help facilitate the conversion.”
Gardner said other factors that favored Cloquet was the “wood basket” – the kind, availability and cost of wood in this region – and the employees at the Cloquet mill.
“The people here are superb,” he said. “They make a very high quality and high consistency pulp. We look at workforce skill, raw materials and assets. All three are very strong here.”
Klobuchar applauded both the vision of the mill’s executives and the dedication of its workers.
“We believe we can make things in this country and that’s exactly what this project is all about,” Klobuchar told the crowd. “For a change we are going to be making things in America that are going to go to China, instead of the opposite way.”
Although Friday’s ceremony was a groundbreaking, the appearance of the mill complex will be largely unchanged, although they are adding on to two buildings. For the most part, it is the inside of the kraft pulp mill that will change, explained Tom Hill, market pulp machine superintendent.
“It’s basically the same process and the same chips [that they use to produce paper pulp], but the end product will be different,” he said. “It’s a purer form of cellulose. And yes, that will take some retraining.”
The company does not anticipate the conversion will impact the number of jobs at the Cloquet mill, which currently totals approximately 780 employees.
After the groundbreaking ceremonies, Brady Nelson, president of the United Steelworkers Local 11-63, said the union is excited and appreciates the investment that Sappi is making at the Cloquet mill.
“At the same time, we are concerned about the future of the paper mill as 65 percent of our members work in the paper mill side of the business,” he said.
Gardner talked about how many ways chemical cellulose is used, ranging from textiles to food and beverage products to health and beauty items.
“It’s even in the communication devices we all use every day,” he told the crowd of approximately 150 people gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony.
DNR Commissioner Tim Landwehr spoke about the abundant natural resources in Minnesota and praised Sappi for the company’s stewardship of Minnesota’s land and water, from using third-party certified lumber, to the recirculation and conservation of water at the mill. He commended Sappi for being innovative as well.
“When one part of the market declined, Sappi found another way to use those resources,” he said, talking about the current and past transformations at the mill.
Project Director Mike Schultz previously said the construction effort is estimated at 300,000 man hours with a peak force of 400 workers. The new cellulose production is set to start in May 2013.