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Irving showcases its pulp mill expansion plans to the public

CANADA (From news reports) -- Finishing the years-long revitalization project at Irving's west Saint John pulp mill will help it compete with some of the largest mills in the world, the company says.

Irving Pulp and Paper, a subsidiary of J.D. Irving, Ltd., offered one of its first chances for the public to learn about the proposed $1.1B expansion Thursday at the Lancaster legion branch. Mark Mosher, president at Irving Pulp & Paper, said that while Canada once was the "global powerhouse" in pulp, investments have gone to countries like Sweden, Finland, Germany and Austria, as well as to South American countries.

"A mill that's competitive like ours was back in the 70s, 80s, is no longer competitive," Mosher said. "This is what it's all about, expanding it to be much more competitive. But it's a great environmental story, because it's a very significant shift."

The four- to six-year project, announced in May, involves the construction of a new recovery boiler said to increase production by approximately 66 per cent, installation of a new steam turbine to generate green energy and construction of a new lime kiln. This will allow the mill to jump from 1,000 air dry metric tonnes of pulp to 1,800 daily, according to its environmental impact assessment, while jumping from 30 MW of power generation to 140 MW, which it intends to sell on to NB Power. According to the environmental impact assessment, this means overall emissions, including from power generation, drop, while emissions from production will increase.

The open house featured displays demonstrating the wood products produced by Irving as well as the kraft pulp process, including how the recovery boiler burns off "black liquor" that had been used to cook wood chips for pulp and convert the chemicals into "white liquor" that can be re-used to repeat the process.

Chris Clark, manager of Saint John's mill operations, said they had 85 advance signups for the event and had been receiving walk-ins.

"The reception has been absolutely overwhelmingly positive," he said. "We're taking an asset that's provided jobs and stability for this area of the province ... and we're upgrading it for another 50 years."

The new recovery boiler would be housed on the existing property on the site of a current parking lot in a building 250 feet high at its tallest point. "Dry scrubbing" technology means the visible plume from the facility will be reduced, and Clark said the project will improve what is an "already good" record for noise and odor. By using the tops of trees or decaying trees currently unharvested, Clark said they can sustain the boosted production using existing Irving freehold and Crown-licenced land.

Clark said that currently, the mill is in the bottom quarter of the 139 market kraft pulp mills in the world, but with the expansion it would boost the mill to about the 12th position globally.

"It allows us to remain competitive on a world stage," he said. "Costs are going up, it's a competitive industry. You need to use economy of scale to remain competitive."

It's the fourth stage of Irving's plans for modernization of the mill, with the third stage including an effluent treatment facility, scheduled to open in November, promised as part of a $3.5 million sentence following Fisheries Act convictions related to leaks of effluent into the St. John River from 2014 to 2016. Clark said that the mill is abiding by current federal regulations, and that the new treatment facility will be able to "meet and exceed" future Fisheries Act regulations that are currently in development "by a significant margin."

Mosher said that he's been working on some version of modernization at the mill since 1999, but had encountered economic twists and turns such as the dot-com bust and the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. He said with seven to eight key components of a mill, all need to be in place to realize production gains.

"We've had a number of stop-starts, so now we're finally on the path to do the last piece of this," he said. "All of this money we've spent to date in the previous phases, it's got us a little more efficient, it's got a little better quality, but it hasn't made any more output, because every piece needs to be working in sync."

Pre-planning engineering work is underway, according to Mark Fitzpatrick, senior director of capital projects, with detailed design to come once approvals, including the EIA process, are complete, he said.

"It's a very extensive amount of work, we've been at it for a while now," he said.

While some of the biggest impacts, including noise and traffic, would come during construction, Clark said it's been studied and they intend to be "good neighbours" and find ways to lighten the load by spreading the work over a multi-year period.

Construction on the project is expected to generate between 210 and 721 full-time jobs over four years, according to an economic assessment, with a projected maximum of 832 workers at project peak. Irving says that means $172 million in tax revenue for local governments and $539 million in employment income over the length of the project.

"It's a pretty impressive investment to be seeing in the local area," said Andrew Beckett, CEO of Envision Saint John, the regional growth agency. "To see JDI making this type of investment that's going to boost their production ... and maintaining the same level of workforce, that's speaking to the productivity that's going to make them competitive, that leads to long-term more stable jobs."

A report released June 19 by economist David Campbell warns that the province's economy has under-performed in part due to weak exports and a trade imbalance, and Beckett said investments like this project are needed to stay competitive.

Ron Marcioni, divisional vice president of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said that Canadian companies have been struggling with competitiveness and efficiencies.

"When you hear of projects like this that are hitting the problem dead on and very accurately, it's very refreshing," Marcioni said, saying JDI is "very good at researching how to improve productivity.

Saint John-Rothesay MLA Wayne Long said that he's supportive of further growth and economic development in the area.

"It's great for our community," he said. "I think their expansion plans are aggressive, I think it's exciting that we have an organization in our community that wants to be a world level ... producer. I think the future is bright, and it's great to see."

Coun. Gerry Lowe said that the impact locally is "work."

"I think it's great, the amount of tradespeople working is unbelievable," he said. "I don't know where they're going to get the tradespeople, but when they do and if they do, it's good for the economy."

JDI has also filed an application to convert the Bald Mountain Rock Quarry site in West Saint John to a wood chip facility, with promotional material stating that chipping will take place inside a building that mitigates noise issues.

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