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Boise Paper - 100 years of papermaking

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Boise Paper - 100 years of papermaking

March 24, 2011 - 16:00

BRUSSELS, March 25, 2011 (RISI) -There was just cause for great celebration in International Falls, MN, in 2010. The Boise Paper mill celebrated its centennial. Any mill reaching its 100th birthday should be honored but with the travails the North American pulp and paper industry has been through recently, this milestone is indeed a special occasion.
The Boise Paper mill celebrated its centennial.

The mill was founded by Edward Wellington Backus who subsequently built mills in Fort Frances and Kenora, ON. The company was known as the Minnesota & Ontario Paper Company (Mando). Unfortunately, the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s was the downfall of many a financier and Backus lost the company in these times.

Jump forward to 1957 when Bob Hansberger bought a sawmill/lumberyard and started Boise Cascade. In 1965, Boise Cascade bought the former Mando mills from a Minneapolis group that owned it. In 2004, in the era of private equity investment in the pulp and paper industry, Chicago-based Madison Dearborn Partners purchased the manufacturing assets and timberlands of Boise Cascade.

The “Mando” mill as it appeared in the early part of the 20th Century. The building in the right foreground is now used as offices.

In 2008 Aldabra 2 Acquisition Corp. acquired the paper and packaging assets of Boise Cascade, L.L.C., including a network of corrugated plants and five paper mills. The company name was changed to Boise Inc. and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Now, the mill at the foot of the Koochiching Falls on the Rainy River produces 548,000 tons/yr of uncoated freesheet in office business papers (cut size copier and printer paper), label and release papers, basesheet, business and specialty grades on four paper machines, a coater and five sheeters.

Interestingly, three of the mill's four original paper machines still operate today although they have been upgraded significantly over the years. As with many mills that opened at the time, International Falls was built to meet the burgeoning demand for newsprint in the US. By 1914, the mill could produce more than 200 tons/day, far above the production of any of its in-state rivals.

The new PM 1 started up in 1990

Closely tied

It was also in 1914 that the Fort Frances mill was opened. It sits on the Canadian side of the Rainy River and although ownership of the two mills is no longer the same, strong ties continue to exist, not only between the mills but also the two communities. Bob Anderson, public affairs manager for the mill and who's spent 50 years working at the mill in various jobs, says the two mills work closely together. Some of the bleached pulp produced by the AbitibiBowater-owned Fort Frances mill is shipped by pipeline to the International Falls mill. Steam and water are also sent by pipeline between the mills.

Bob Anderson: A special man

As noted Bob Anderson has been with the International Falls mill for 50 years, half of the mill’s lifespan. He started in production with what was then Mando. His work with the community went beyond the mill. He also served as mayor of International Falls. This led into his position at the mill as public affairs manager.

The bridge that crosses the Rainy River was built by Backus in 1912. Ownership of the bridge is now shared by Boise and AbitibiBowater. Backus also started the Minnesota, Dakota and Western Railroad (MD&W), which continues to serve both communities. The MD&W is a short line hauler taking products from both mills about three miles to the main CN line, where the large Canadian carrier hauls the cars to Chicago and points south. Anderson estimates that 80% of International Falls' production and 70% of Fort Frances' is shipped by rail. As Anderson says, the two communities are very inter-related. Harnessing the power from the Koochiching Falls was Backus' first goal and the mill today generates enough power to provide about 50% of the mill's electrical needs. It buys the rest from the state grid. In another point of cooperation, water from the Rainy River is shared by the two mills and together they control the level of the lakes above the mills with the approval of the International Joint Commission.

Abundant wood and easy access to water were the reasons for the construction of many a mill in the early part of the 20th Century, just as they are critical success factors today. Most of the mill's fiber comes from the region in the US, but at times, some may come from further afield, even from Canada. It is primarily hardwood (aspen and poplar). "These species grow vigorously here," says Anderson. The mill will also buy chips from area sawmills.

In addition to the pulp manufactured on site, the mill purchases pulp through the Fort Frances pipeline, the Boise mill in Wallula, WA, and recycled pulp.

International Falls produces 1,100 tons/day in sheets

Far sighted management

So many of International Falls' contemporaries have shut their doors, how has this remote mill survived? One of the first keys to its survival came more than 35 years ago, in 1975, when copiers and home printers were beginning to make their mark, Boise Cascade made the strategic decision to move to cut size papers. "Being in these grades certainly helped us," Anderson notes.

Prior to 1975, besides newsprint, the mill also made bag papers, forms and foil packaging papers for use in cigarette packages.

Over the years the owners have not been afraid to spend money. In 1988, another strategic decision taken was to rebuild the mill. Over two years, $535 million was invested, including the installation of a new PM 1. In all, besides the new paper machine, the mill added a new bleach plant (three-stage with chlorine dioxide as the main bleaching agent), lime kiln, three digesters, two Will sheeters, warehouse, two package boilers, and a high-pressure boiler (bark and biomass). The wood plant and recovery boiler were upgraded.

The recovery island underwent further modernization in 2001 during a $20-million overhaul that included rebuilding the recovery boiler.

Finally, but by no means least, Anderson credits the workforce at the mill. "We have a great employee base. There is a well-educated workforce in Minnesota. This workforce along with the capital improvements and the product lines say why Boise is still here."

The population of International Falls is about 6,700. With about 830 fulltime employees and another 360 under contract (including wood suppliers), it is easy to see the importance of the mill to the town and surrounding communities. There are numerous families that have sent generations of workers to the mill: grandfathers, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters.

PMs 2, 3 and 4 are in the original machine building and are parallel to each other. Boise invests annually in the equipment, including the latest automation features such as state-of-the-art quality and distributed control systems. The three machines also produce more of the specialty grades that International Falls markets.

PM 2 dates from the mill´s opening in 1910

Papermakers operating these machines produce a wide variety of papers, including laser copier paper C1S release paper, flexible packaging such as microwavable popcorn bags, and Boise®FIREWORX® colored papers (40-50), and repositional note paper (that is, paper with a strip of adhesive along one edge).

Boise FIREWORX contains about 30% recycled content. A number of white paper grades also contain recycled content, usually 20-30%. However, the mill can and has produced paper with up to 100% recycled content

With a wire width of 380 in., PM 1 can far outstrip its "older" siblings. Its production consists primarily of uncoated freesheet (cut size paper).

PM 1 produces cut size paper that is destined for another special innovation developed at International Falls and introduced in 2004: the Boise® SPLOX® Paper Delivery System. SPLOX stands for speed loading box. Boise holds the patent on the machine that stacks five reams (2,500 sheets) per box. The box is designed for productivity and ergonomics, with a special top that makes it easy to unload the paper. "The box unfolds and the paper is ready to go," explains Anderson. "It's great for high speed copiers."

PM 1 also produces Boise® X-9® multipurpose papers, the company's best selling multi-use copy paper. Boise X-9 has earned the Buyers Laboratory Inc. Performance Certified seal of approval for five years running, recognizing the paper's outstanding performance of papers in office machinery.

In total, the mill produces 548,000 tons/year of uncoated free sheet. The mill's main market is North America.

Environmental sustainability is core to the success of the mill and Boise Inc. Employees have earned the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Certificate of Commendation six times since 1998, for the outstanding operation, maintenance, and management of the mill wastewater treatment system.

Anderson says that 100% of the mill's wood waste and 90% of its sludge are recovered for fuel for the high-pressure boiler. About 90% of the ash is then used as a soil additive on agricultural land in the area.

Safety remains the integral value of the mill and the company. "We were the first business in Minnesota to receive the MN Star Flag that says we are a safe operation," Anderson states. This is a Minnesota Occupational Health and Safety Administration program. The employer must demonstrate leadership, an allocation of resources to address safety issues, have systems in place that identify and control workplace hazards and, have a plan for employee safety training and education.

Anderson explained why International Falls has been around for 100 years and he explains how it will survive another 100. "It will be by being quick on our feet with regards to grades, equipment and keeping the people trained; the same things that brought us the first 100 years. This includes a continuous improvement in all phases of the operation."

As for advances in communications, he says, "We have gone through various communications revolutions before; electronics is just the latest."

Partnership will help
In December 2010, the National Center for Pulp and Paper Technology Training announced that Rainy River Community College (RRCC), International Falls, has joined the National Network for Pulp and Paper Technology Training (NPT2).
According to Tammy Cook, director of instructional services at RRCC, the partnership “will make available additional training and experience necessary to meet the increasing demand for advanced technology workers at the local Boise Inc. mill.”