COSMOPOLIS, Wash. (From news reports) -- Cosmo Specialty Fibers, a specialty pulp mill in Cosmopolis, celebrated a major step last Wednesday toward returning to full operations after an eight-month shutdown caused by overseas market declines due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're at an exciting point right now. We actually produced pulp (Wednesday) night for the first time in a little over eight months," said the company's Director of Strategic Initiatives Larry Davis. "And all of our staff has returned now, and that has been a multi-week process."
About 150 full time employees have returned, along with a handful of contractors, and there are even some vacancies to fill.
The startup process is lengthy and complicated, finely tuning machinery and "balancing different materials across the system working toward a balance," said Davis. "With what we're seeing in the startup we're very confident to be at full production some time early (this) week," if not earlier.
The impact of Cosmo resuming operations goes beyond the company's bottom line and the 150 people returning to the workforce.
"With the impact that we have on the community we're excited not just for our business and employees but the whole community," said Davis.
The shutdown was a major blow to the town of Cosmopolis, said Mayor Kyle Pauley.
"When I first heard the impacts that SARS-CoV-2 was having on Cosmo Specialty Fibers business (last winter), I knew that it would bring hardships on our local residents," said Pauley. "It is unfortunate that the impacts led to a lengthened shutdown and loss of work for employees, but I commend the leadership from (the company) for their actions that allowed for a restart of business."
The tight-knit community suffered economically and Pauley, in his first term as mayor, and the City Council had to adjust.
"When Cosmo Specialty Fibers ceased operation for a time, it caused the city to make changes to our budget priorities," said Pauley. "While it has placed many restrictions on my priorities and city operations, it does not compare to the budget adjustments that had to be made by our residents who were without work this year and their families."
Davis remarked what a boost it was for the community to see the employee parking lot at the facility full again, and Pauley shared that sentiment.
"The first day that I looked out from Cosmopolis City Hall and saw a full parking lot at Cosmo Specialty Fibers after months, I cannot fully express the feelings it brought," said Pauley. "The sound, and occasionally the smell, of returned operations at our local business brings a feeling of relief to myself knowing that our community is back to some normalcy."
Safety of the employees is of course a major concern.
"First priority is employee safety; it's integral to how we think and we work in all our conversations," said Davis, "making sure everybody returns home as they came here."
The lengthy restart process had some employees working outside of their usual job descriptions, but Davis said employees are working together, watching out for each other and slowing down when needed. The facility is sticking to safety protocols like distancing and masks and personal protective gear. "Distancing is a bit of a challenge, but we can manage it with some additional attention to detail," said Davis.
Cosmo is a unique operation. "We are the only dissolving pulp mill in western North America right now," said Davis. A dissolving pump is one used in the production of regenerated cellulose, which is converted and used to create man-made fibers.
"It's used mostly in fabric, apparel production, so our pulp goes into rayon type fabrics and the upscale fabric lyocell. If you see clothing with lyocell on the label there's a chance it originated from a tree right here on the Harbor," said Davis. The company uses soft wood species sourced in local forests, including Douglas fir, hemlock and spruce.
China is a primary market for Cosmo. "The result of that was we were among the first to feel the results of the pandemic," said Davis, because customers in China slowed down in January of 2020, long before the first cases were reported in the U.S. and in Washington.
While shut down, the company "made some improvements in a number of areas" to hit the ground running when a restart was possible. Davis said markets were expanded from mostly China to "other places like India and other parts of Asia," and some European markets.
Along with geographic diversification, using its pulp in other products outside the apparel market, like personal protective equipment, has diversified the company's customer base. That includes hand wipes. "Our pulp is also used in that kind of product, which is a great business to be in," said Davis.
Cosmo was enjoying a very successful year when the shutdown occurred, and Davis is confident the company will come back even stronger because of the expansion to other markets and products.
"We expect it to be our best year because of the diversification we have put in place," said Davis. The lyocell, a higher grade, more environmentally friendly product, is also in demand from higher end clothing manufacturers.