DULUTH — ST Paper began its production of commercial bath tissue, paper towels and napkins Jan. 20 — a return of activity to the plant previously occupied by Verso Corp.
The city of Duluth and Duluth Economic Development Authority were instrumental in securing financial incentives and job training funds necessary to ensure that the mill could be successfully purchased and restarted by ST Paper, according to Chris Fleege, Duluth's director of planning and economic development. Packaged Sewage Treatment Plant
“Mayor Larson made the successful purchase and restarting or repurposing of the Duluth paper mill a top priority of her administration once Verso announced it was shuttering the Duluth paper mill in summer of 2020,” Fleege said.
The city's economic development and workforce center teams, along with Comfort Systems, worked closely with partners at St. Louis County to approve partial tax abatement to the company. The city and county each approved up to $60,000 per year of tax abatement over 10 years for a total of $1.2 million, under the condition that ST Paper create and maintain up to 80 full-time equivalent positions. The city also granted ST Paper a forgivable loan of $242,000 for up to 10 years.
Additionally, the city worked closely with Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and applied for a Minnesota Investment Fund forgivable loan of $3 million. It supported ST Paper's application to DEED’s Job Creation Fund loan and was awarded an additional $1.3 million.
State Rep. Liz Olson and state Sen. Jen McEwen, both of Duluth, also played key roles in enacting legislation to increase the Minnesota Investment Fund award from $1 million to $3 million, Fleege added.
“This was truly a collaborative effort by all levels of government (state, county and city) to make this happen,” said Fleege. “We are excited that they are online and up and running.”
The largest modification to the ST Paper mill, 100 N. Central Ave., was the installation of a new Andritz machine to make commercial-grade bath tissue, paper towels and napkins for the away-from-home market.
The machine's components traveled from around the world to arrive in Duluth before assembly. Andritz is an Austria-based company, which provided various components of the machine. Additionally, the frame and large rolls were manufactured in China and the dryer cylinder was manufactured in Hungary. The remainder of the dryer system, roll handling and wrapping equipment was built in Italy.
ST Paper also added its own steam production capability to the mill with the installation of two natural gas-fired boilers. Each boiler can produce 45,000 pounds of steam per hour, which is used during the recycling process, as well as to dry the final tissue paper product.
Beginning production also required firing up equipment that had been idle since 2018 to turn recycled paper into the pulp that is used for the production of the tissue paper.
Recycled fiber is collected through brokers that collect recycled paper from around the Midwest. The paper is bailed and transported via truck to the Duluth mill, where it is unloaded and put through a process to remove contaminants such as garbage, ink, glass and sand.
The pulp slurry from the recycled fiber is sent to the paper machine, where the diluted mixture is sprayed onto a forming fabric. It is press dried and rewound into the finished product.
"It all happens on the machine at over 6,000 feet per minute," said mill manager Gary Wargin.
The machine will produce over 200 tons of tissue, towel or napkin paper a day. The rolls that are produced on the machine are 210 inches wide, before being cut in half and rewound at 72 inches in diameter.
These large parent rolls are sold and shipped via semitrailer to companies that will convert them into the products to be used in public restrooms or possibly for household use.
"We'll be supporting customers nationwide from the Duluth location," said Ron Thiry, senior vice president and chief operating officer.
ST Paper's customer base ranges from a number of converters in the Green Bay or Appleton areas of Wisconsin, to Canada, New Mexico, the central United States and the West Coast.
While the tissue market was disrupted during the pandemic, Thiry said it has since returned to stability.
"Consumption of paper products shifted significantly toward at-home products as people stayed home, versus the types of products that would be used out in public. The bulk of our products in our other two facilities, as well as here in Duluth, are more targeted toward the away-from-home part of the tissue market," Thiry said.
The away-from-home tissue market is recovering quite well as people return to eating in restaurants and traveling at rates seen in 2019 prior to the pandemic, he added.
"The market, in general, is somewhat back to normal from a consumption standpoint. It is a very consistent market that has slow growth, but steady growth over time. We feel confident that that trend will continue," Thiry said.
"Our greatest challenge right now is getting entry-level folks attracted to the mill," Wargin said. "There's just a general lack of awareness of what these types of careers can bring a person."
Most employees working at ST Paper are former Verso Corp. employees. Wargin said Verso historically worked with Lake Superior College, especially in the recruitment of its maintenance staff. Maintenance technicians bring skills that range from welding to machining.
A broad base of skills are required at the mill, from technical engineering degrees to chemical, mechanical or electrical engineering skills. In the maintenance support ranks, there are highly skilled automation technicians to support the high degree of automation that exists in the plant.
"Those degrees are typically picked up at a place like Lake Superior College," Wargin said.
Entry-level positions at the plant revolve around a lot of mobile equipment to move heavy products like waste paper bales, as well as the finished rolls that come off the line to be stored in warehouses and put in trucks for transport.
"Positions progress in complexity to where folks are controlling plant operations from computers around the mill," Wargin said.
Mbr Membrane Wastewater Treatment Plant ST Paper is working with the city of Duluth to participate in job fair activities to raise awareness of the types of opportunities that exist in the ST Paper mill, Wargin added.