Fifteen years ago, when Rodney Staff was walking out of the Prince Albert pulp mill, he knocked on the wooden counter and said he’d be back.
It was April 8, 2006, and Staff was one of several staff members who had been laid off when the mill, first opened in 1968, was closed.
Staff has been away from the mill for almost as long as he worked there. He spent 16 years as a pulp mill employee.
Now, Staff is the president of Unifor Local 1120, which represents the 185 staff who have recall rights to future jobs at the mill.
“I’ve been working since 2007 to keep interested parties knowing that we’re still here as the local union and we will work with the powers that be to get this pulp mill up and running again. I knew we had a valuable asset out there and that it was too good not to start up.”
Staff said he was “ecstatic” Friday when Paper Excellence, which purchased the mill from Domtar ten years ago, announced it had already spent $600,000 on engineering and design work at the mill and was eyeing a summer 2023 reopening.
In a press release, the company said the investment is for engineering work for new equipment and a detailed evaluation of what needs to be refurbished. They also said they installed new signs at the mill entrance in mid-January “to signal … efforts to restart the mill.”
“(Paper Excellence) plans to restart the facility as soon as possible once the current non-compete agreement with the former owner expires in March 2021,” the press release says.
“Paper Excellence looks forward to the day when the site can employ 200 people, creating over $300 million per year in economic benefits for Prince Albert and all of Saskatchewan.”
Graham Kissack, Paper Excellence vice president of EHS and corporate communications, said that between getting the mill ready, arranging for fibre supply and getting the appropriate approvals in place, the company is targeting an opening of summer 2023. In addition to the 200 or so full-time employees for the mill site, he estimated that about 1,000 to 1,500 indirect jobs would result from the economic spinoff. He said the mill will produce just under 1,000 tonnes per day.
The mill has an annual capacity of 340,000 tones of northern bleached softwood kraft, pulp composed of longer fibres and used as reinforcement pulp in a variety of paper products including printing and writing paper, specialty grades and tissue products.
Paper Excellence estimates the capital and cost to restart the mill at about $550 million. It will consume an estimated 1,849,000 square metres of fibre each year.
“We’re really excited to be announcing that we’re really starting to ramp up work on the project,” he said.
“The reality is there are a bunch of critical processes that have to come together to make that happen. We wanted to … make sure people are aware that this project is starting to pick up some momentum. That $600,000 is starting to bring that picture into focus for us of what that plant will look like if we’re able to start it up in 2023.”
When it comes time for the plant to open and for staff to be hired, the 185 members of Local 1120 have recall rights, meaning they’ll be offered those jobs first. If they don’t want to come back, they’ll lose their spot and new candidates will be recruited to fill the positions.
“This is a new era for Prince Albert,” Staff said.
“It’s going to be a very attractive place to work. The job aspects of it are going to be fantastic. Young people in northern Saskatchewan are going to be given such a fantastic opportunity to have a well-paying job and benefits and everything that goes along with it.”
Between now and then, though, Paper Excellence needs to finalize financing, engineering and design work, secure fibre supply agreements and complete necessary approvals with the province.
The mill hasn’t operated since 2006 when it was closed in the second quarter. Domtar purchased the mill and its assets from Weyerhauser in 2007 and began dismantling equipment in 2008.
“The facility curtailed (production) almost 15 years ago, so we’re looking at making improvements in the pulping and the bleach plant area,” Kissack said.
“That’s going to result in a facility that makes a better product, it’s going to result in a facility that’s more globally competitive and it’s going to result in a facility that has a lighter environmental footprint.”
In a statement, Paper Excellence vice president energy and business development, Carlo Dal Monte, said they plan to replace the entire fibre line from the digester to the last bleaching stage.
“This will replace the heart of the mill and let us take full advantage of the existing recovery boiler, which is one of the most modern in Canada,” he said.
“While this is an expensive strategy, it will simplify construction and minimize commissioning risks.”
In October, Pelican Lake First Nation and Witchekan Lake First nation signed a letter of intent with Paper Excellence to build a collaborative relationship.
Kissack said Paper Excellence is currently in conversation with 16 First Nations about several topics relating to the mill.
“Fibre supply is one of them,” he said, “but there are also opportunities relating to potential ownership and operation of some ancillary operations to the plant. We’re hoping in the coming months we can progress those conversations and get a better flavour for what’s possible.”
Domtar Corp. sold the mill to Paper Excellence in March of 2011. The deal included a ten-year non-compete clause.
In 2014, Paper Excellence abandoned plans to convert the mill to a dissolving pulp operation after global trade tariffs came into place and the market collapsed.
Kissack said Paper Excellence is “well aware” of the non-compete clause ending, and has been working on the project for the last 12 months or so. As that work has begun, the company has gotten a better understanding of what the economics are like, what’s possible at the site, how much fibre is available in the area and what global pulp markets look like.
“Things are starting to come together, and that’s why we’re getting more serious about the work as we progress,” he said.
“We’re excited to be ramping this back up. We’ve got a lot of time and a lot of faith in Saskatchewan as being a good jurisdiction to operate in. The area has great people with great skill and it’s got robust access to the natural resources we need to run a mill like this in terms of forest fibre and water.”
While the mill hasn’t operated since 2006, for a short time a biomass power plant was operated on the site. It was closed indefinitely in 2014.
Staff worked at that operation, too. When it closed, he made the same promise as he had in 2006.
“I again knocked on wood on my way out saying I would be back,” he recalled.
“Now, 1120 is back and we’re going to get this mill up and running.”
Local officials declined to comment on Friday’s announcement. The Prince Albert Regional Economic Development Alliance (PAREDA) explained that they would not make a statement until more information became available. Prince Albert’s mayor declined comment for similar reasons.
Staff had no such qualms.
“ We’re moving forward and getting the mill up and running. We’re going to finally get Prince Albert back on the map with a fully functioning pulp mill, better than it was before,” he said.
“We’ve been waiting for ten years. I’m ecstatic, I’m enthusiastic and I can’t wait … to get busy.”
- With files from Michael Oleksyn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Daily Herald