Fort Frances and Rainy River District heard the words they’ve been waiting for last Thursday as Abitibi-Consolidated officially announced it had approved the $84.3-million biomass boiler for the local pulp and paper mill.
As well, the project is getting a boost from the provincial government in the form a $22.5-million grant under the Forest Sector Prosperity Fund.
The formal press conference, held at the mill’s training centre here, featured a panel of speakers, including Natural Resources minister David Ramsay, Michel Maillé, Abitibi’s vice-president of Commercial Printing Papers, regional mill manger Doug Murray, head of the mill council and IAM 771 president Herman Pruys, and Coun. Tannis Drysdale, the deputy mayor of Fort Frances.
All applauded the co-operative effort to make the biomass project a reality.
“As a government, we’re investing in the businesses that help Northern Ontario prosper,” Ramsay said.
“Through the Prosperity Fund, we are supporting a key engine of our economy—the forest sector, making that sector more competitive, securing good jobs in the north, and developing clean, renewable energy sources.
“We are very pleased to support this initiative.”
Ramsay noted the biomass boiler not only will produce steam and electricity for the mill, resulting in significant cost-savings to the company, but “foster greater energy self-sufficiency, strengthen the competitive position of this operation, develop a market for underutilized wood fibre, help secure over 600 existing mill jobs, and create about 50 new jobs in biomass harvesting and transportation.”
“This is basically a new part of forestry now,” Ramsay remarked.
“As you know, to date, we haven’t really harvested the slash—the leftover residual from forest operations—and now we’re doing that,” he noted. “It offers new opportunities in Northern Ontario.”
The Prosperity Fund is part of the province’s $1 billion-plus plan to help forest companies invest in their own future—and the future of the communities that depend on them.
Ramsay added the mill also will be able to qualify for electricity rebates under the province’s Northern Pulp and Paper Electricity Transition program, which was announced by Premier Dalton McGuinty back in November.
Under that program, the province is making $140 million available in quarterly rebates to mills that use more than 50,000 megawatts annually.
The rebates could reduce Abitibi’s energy costs by as much as 15 percent over the next three years.
“It’s a great day,” enthused Maillé. “I think it’s a very important day for our employees, for the Fort Frances community, and also for our shareholders.
“This is a very good investment we’re making here in Fort Frances.”
He added investment is part of Abitibi’s strategic plan to reduce costs to the lowest level possible, and make sure its best assets, of which the local mill is one, are “among the best in the industry.”
Maillé said the biomass boiler will make the mill “better-equipped to face the global competition we are facing day after day.”
He also noted the $84.3-million project is the biggest investment announced by Abitibi in four years.
“That clearly demonstrates how much we believe in the potential in our Fort Frances mill in the future, as well as in the expertise and dedication of our employees to deliver on a return of this project,” said Maillé.
“And I’m sure they’re going to do it.”
“It’s great to be here today,” echoed Murray. “This is a great event for us because it helps us decouple from the pricing of energy.
“Natural gas is a major component of our costs in Fort Frances,” he noted. “By taking the fuel from our forests and making our steam with it, we cannot worry as much about what’s going to happen in the world with respect to the price of natural gas.”
Murray added the new boiler will significantly reduce the amount of the electricity the mill takes from the grid, generating about 46.5 megawatts.
“It’s a significant move ahead to take us away from world costs,” he remarked.
He explained the biomass boiler will use renewable, cost-effective fuel from wood waste to generate 470,000 pounds of steam an hour.
It will burn mill-generated wood waste and primary sludge, as well as harvest slash from woodlands operations and wood waste from area sawmills. It will require 350,000 “oven dry” tonnes of biomass fuel (or just over 700,000 “green” tonnes) each year.
“It’s going to be a huge quantity of material,” said Murray. “We’re going to need logistics to move it here.”
Murray reiterated the boiler will help secure employment for more than 600 mill employees and create about 50 new jobs in biomass harvesting and transportation, as well as other economic spin-offs.
Murray noted the project has become a reality thanks to teamwork, especially Ramsay and the MNR.
“They were very interested in making sure Fort Frances survived and that we were able to find a solution to make the industry work,” he remarked.
Murray also stressed the boiler announcement means the local operation has a new responsibility.
“The corporation has given us a lot of money. We have to make sure we bring the project in on time, on budget, and make sure it works—that the mill gets the benefits we said we would get out of it.”
“This is a great day for Abitibi employees, the Town of Fort Frances, and the whole district,” agreed Pruys.
“The efforts of the company, government, Town of Fort Frances, and the unions have made this all possible,” he noted, adding the biomass boiler project has had the support of IAM 771, IBEW 1744, and CEP 92 and 306, which struck an agreement with the company in January for labour stability to help make the project happen.
“We are now looking forward to the construction and operation of the new boiler,” Pruys continued. “Energy costs should drop substantially, making this mill a viable operation for the long-term.
“That’s what we’re all after,” he stressed. “In a one-industry town, it’s important we keep that industry going. I think today we’ve taken a big step in accomplishing that.”
Coun. Drysdale delivered a message on behalf of Mayor Roy Avis, who could not make Thursday morning’s announcement because he was out of town.
“The citizens of Fort Frances have been eagerly awaiting news of this important project and are undoubtedly appreciative of this announcement,” the mayor wrote in his message.
“I would like to acknowledge the sacrifices and commitment to this project by all local Abitibi employees,” he added. “I would also like to thank the provincial government for their support and assistance in making this project a reality.
“I am also proud to acknowledge the effort of town council and administration in working collaboratively with Doug Murray and his staff to resolve and expedite planning matters.”
The mayor, through Coun. Drysdale, also noted this announcement will have a stabilizing influence on the economy of Fort Frances and the district for years to come.
“Once again, I thank Abitibi for the announcement and the opportunity to work with the company on this initiative,” he said. “The professionalism of all parties was focused towards a common goal resulting in the betterment of our community.”
Construction on the biomass boiler is scheduled to begin this summer, with the generator in operation in the fall of 2008.