Boiler changes offer new beginning at Glatfelter
CHILLICOTHE — When Chillicothe’s paper mill employees reported to work on April 4, 2006, they arrived to find new flags flying on the property, members of their new corporate management team on site and a new sense of optimism as Pennsylvania-based Glatfelter assumed the reins of the mill from NewPage.
“The feedback has been extremely positive,” John Blind, divisional vice president for what was then the printing and carbonless paper division, said at the time. “Everyone’s looking forward to a new beginning.”
Now, 10 years later, the mill is undergoing another new beginning that current mill manager Sean Wallace said represents a commitment by Glatfelter to the long-term presence of the operation in Chillicothe. That commitment — a $31 million conversion of its two coal-fired boilers to natural gas in response to changes in federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations — has already started with Columbia Gas running new lines to the mill but should begin in earnest over the summer.
“Obviously, this is a significant investment by Glatfelter,” said Wallace. “There’s many paper mills that are having to go through this analysis and, unfortunately, many of them are making the decision to just shut down their boilers and not spend the money to convert it. So, I think the fact that Glatfelter is making this investment is a testament to their long-term commitment to the mill, to the employees and to the community.”
Besides the apparent long-term employment stability for a workforce of more than 1,100 people, the conversion program carries with it an additional benefit in what Wallace called a “significant reduction in our emissions” since natural gas is cleaner burning that coal. It also is less complex to maintain, meaning the company should see a reduction in its maintenance costs.
“Most importantly, it’s providing a future for the mill and the community in terms of anticipating that the mill is going to be here for many years to come,” Wallace said.
One challenge that does exist with the conversion is in operating costs since natural gas costs tend to be higher than coal with prices also fluctuating more wildly. Presently, natural gas costs are on the low end, Wallace said, but that will be something the company will have to continuously monitor.
The conversion work will take place on the plant’s boilers number 7 and 8, which are the two boilers that vent through the facility’s iconic red-and-white striped smokestack. Last year, the company spent about a quarter of a million dollars doing an intensive evaluation of the stack to make sure it is structurally sound and this September is going to do some refurbishing on the inside of the stack in connection with the conversion, during which both boilers will be taken offline.
The number 7 boiler will also be taken offline in June for about eight to 10 weeks so its conversion to natural gas can be done, being restarted somewhere around mid-August burning natural gas. When both boilers are taken down in September for about three weeks to work on the stack, that also will be when conversion work on the number 8 boiler will begin. The number 8 boiler, burning natural gas, should be back in service in November — well in advance of the Jan. 31 compliance deadline to meet the federal regulations.
The company is also spending another $59 million for boiler upgrades at its Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, mill.
The 10-year period within which Glatfelter has operated the Chillicothe mill has been one of significant change, both within the local operation and within the industry itself. With an ever-increasing consumer shift to electronic media rather than paper media, around 60 paper machine closures have been reported across North America in those 10 years in the uncoated free sheet market, with shipments dropping from slightly more than 12 million in 2006 to 7.7 million in 2015.
To remain a significant player in the market, therefore, meant a need for change and diversification.
“For many years, carbonless (paper) was our main grade, we’d been a leading producer of carbonless for many, many years,” Wallace said. “With Glatfelter coming on board, we’ve been able to grow in a couple of additional grades — one is in book publishing, now we’re a leading producer in book publishing. People probably read these novels and probably don’t even realize that paper was made by Glatfelter, and most likely at this mill. That’s been a huge success story for us.”
In 2012, the company invested in a new sheeter for the mill that allowed for growth into the high-speed inkjet market, and the company has also diversified into more niche products such as repostable notes and coloring books for adults.
Company officials tout an improved safety record at the Chillicothe mill, saying that over the 10 years under Glatfelter, work-related injuries have dropped 30 percent. They also express pride in community involvement such as an Adopt Tiffin program through which company employees greet students at Tiffin Elementary as they arrive to school on Fridays and conduct clothing drives for students, as well as engage in other interactions with school functions.
Challenges still remain as the company looks at the next 10 years and beyond, one of which is facing several industries presently. Wallace said over the next decade, as much as half of the mill’s workforce will be reaching retirement age. Mitzi Anderson, senior human resources manager, said that while they’ve been able to fill positions as they come open presently, they are seeing a rapidly shrinking pool of qualified applicants with the skills to successfully perform jobs at the mill. The company is working closely with the Chillicothe City Schools and Pickaway-Ross Career and Technology Center in order to address those needs.
The company also faces the dichotomy of being both a major sources of employment in Ross County while also being targeted by those with issues regarding the smell produced by the paper-making process and those with concerns about emissions. It presently is defending against a $5 million class action lawsuit claiming, among other things, that odors and particulates are depriving nearby residents of enjoyment of their homes and that those particulates have done damage to property. While Wallace could not comment directly about the lawsuit, he did say that the company has worked over the years at constantly improving its relationship and responsiveness with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and in its commitment to the environment.
“I can guarantee our commitment to the community, our commitment to the environment, is going to be unwavering going forward,” he said.