Rising from the Ashes

In Greek mythology, the phoenix is a bird that rises from the ashes of its own destruction. The pulp and paper industry, especially in North America, maybe should adopt the phoenix as its symbol or mascot.

I recently visited the new von Drehle tissue mill in Natchez, Miss. (see feature article on page 14 of this issue). I lived in Natchez for a short while more than a few years ago. I had moved there from Mobile, Ala., where I was working at International Paper Co.’s now-closed Erling Riis Research Laboratory, part of IP’s subsequently defunct Southern Kraft Division.

I worked at IP’s dissolving pulp mill in Natchez, which was shut down in mid-2003 and razed over the following years. At its peak, the Natchez mill was the largest private employer in Adams County. At shutdown, it employed some 600 people, down from the 1,000 or so when I was there. (Nearly 150 were laid off in the fall of 2001.)

While in Natchez for the von Drehle story, I went by the old mill site. At first I couldn’t find it. When something this big and prominent is hacked into a scattering of broken structures, concrete rubbish, and tall weeds, it’s hard to find.

The IP Natchez mill had 23 big batch digesters, a power plant, chemical recovery, a pulp machine, an expansive woodyard, waste treatment, and supporting office buildings. Now the only things somewhat recognizable are the concrete steps leading into what used to be the main administration building and the cracked layers of asphalt that was the front parking lot. I went up those six steps and was able to find where I think my office once was.

Looking out of where I believe my office window overlooked the mill, I saw an apocalyptic horror—a field of twisted reinforcing bars, busted up cement pads and walls, broken glass, various colored metal and plastic pieces, and some things I didn’t recognize as matter—extending pretty far into the distance.

POWER OF TRAINING

The next morning I was at the new von Drehle mill, more or less down the street. The new mill is actually a makeover of the old Mississippi River Pulp (MRP) deinked wet lap pulp mill that had come to Natchez in the dying years of IP’s mill there. The facility was originally Diamond Co., making egg carton and other products from newsprint, and was acquired by MRP in 1995. In mid-2012, MRP went bankrupt and von Drehle acquired the operations in early 2013. They extensively rebuilt the pulp mill and installed the first Valmet NTT tissue machine in the U.S. It started up this past March 31.

Having been at the razed nightmare of my former mill the afternoon before, going through the doors of the von Drehle mill was like walking into the future, or maybe the past, from another perspective. It was like a new mill risen from the ashes of the old MRP and the IP mills in Natchez—like a phoenix.

This mill was beautifully structured and clean. The NTT machine and machine room was relatively smooth and quiet (I’ve been in mills where ear plugs have to wear ear plugs), and the converting plant was sparkling new.

As detailed in the article, one of the especially critical factors in von Drehle’s success at Natchez has been operator training. The mill had only three papermakers (one was Gary James, who headed up the mill’s training program) when the time came to get things moving forward. Fortunately, the team was able to hire a bunch of operations people from the energy sector.

Gary tapped into NC State University’s expertise to get the training program underway. N.C. State, Gary says, had some experience with NTT—the basic concept, how it works, etc.—and the whole mill went through that training. VonDrehle also used some of TAPPI’s elearning courses in its training effort. This was followed by site specific process training for six weeks. Altogether, the team did about 20 weeks of training.

With such a well-trained crew, together with some of the industry’s best technology and equipment, Gary described the March 31 startup as a “blessing.” Tissue was on the reel the first try, and the mill made 27 tons of sellable paper the first day.

Von Drehle’s Natchez operations currently employ some 125 people, a number that is expected to ratchet up to near 150 as the mill brings its fifth converting line up and moves toward sustained, maximum output. That’s not near the 1,000 jobs at IP’s Natchez mill when I was there, but it’s a start. Von Drehle has built-in plans to add a second machine at Natchez, maybe in the not too distant future. Perhaps then more converting capacity will also be added, and the mill will move nearer that of the IP mill in the early 2000s—rising from the ashes, so to speak.

KEN PATRICK

Editorial Director/Associate Publisher, Tissue 360o

EDITORIAL STAFF

KEN PATRICK, Editorial Director/Associate Publisher
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LARRY N. MONTAGUE, President & CEO, TAPPI
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ERIC FLETTY, VP Operations, TAPPI
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JAN BOTTIGLIERI, Editorial Director, Paper 360o
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MONICA SHAW, Editorial Director, TAPPI Journal
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