By Tony Kryzanowski
Resolute Forest Products has helped to breathe life back into northwestern Ontario’s forest industry, and in particular struggling communities like Atikokan, having spent more than $50 million to build a new sawmill east of the town.
The sawmill is an exclamation point to an overall $150 million investment and creation of over 200 new jobs in the region by the company. All told, Resolute’s three Ontario sawmills produce about 560 million board feet of lumber, making it one of the largest dimension lumber producers in the province.
Located in Sapawe, about 30 kilometres east of Atikokan, the site of this greenfield project is the former home of another sawmill called Atikokan Forest Products. It closed permanently in 2007 and was completely dismantled. Construction of Resolute’s sawmill started in November 2013, with the drilling and blasting of 130,000 cubic metres of bedrock just to prepare the site for construction, which began in March 2014.
The sawmill is a sign of hope for Atikokan, a picturesque community known as the ‘Canoe Capital of Canada’, which has gone through many resource booms and busts for decades. Its population reached nearly 8,000 when area iron ore mines and forestry enterprises thrived, but has declined now to about 2,800 permanent residents as a consequence of the loss of those mines and forestry jobs. Suffice to say that the Resolute sawmill has brought smiles to the faces of many area residents who are being trained to work at the sawmill. It has provided 90 jobs operating on a two-shift basis, with about 80 per cent of those employees coming from Atikokan itself. Another 100 jobs are tied to the contract operations supporting the sawmill.
“We are taking people who formerly worked in daycares, gas stations, and retail shops and we are teaching them how to become sawmillers,” says Michael Martel, vice-president of forest operations at Resolute, who has been directly involved overseeing Resolute’s capital investment plan for northwestern Ontario.
“We have a lot of apprenticeships, and people with no industrial experience whatsoever.”
On the technical side, they have attracted some employees from other Resolute operations and from across Canada, who either moved and welcomed the chance to come back to Atikokan, or just saw this as a great opportunity.
Construction was completed in spring 2015, and the sawmill is now close to achieving its production target of 150 million board feet of dimension lumber annually.
It produces dimension lumber from 2” x 3” to 2” x 10”, in lengths from 6’ to 16’, with the highest volume products being 2” x 4” and 2” x 6” in 16’ lengths. In addition to the sawmill, the project included construction of a new, high speed planer mill, capable of running at 226 lugs per minute. It will process 260 million board feet annually, as it will also plane 9’ lumber manufactured at Resolute’s stud mill in nearby Ignace.
The sawmill consumes about 600,000 cubic metres of wood annually, consisting of about 80 per cent jackpine and 20 per cent spruce. All logs harvested for Resolute’s Atikokan and Ignace sawmills and 30 per cent of the Thunder Bay sawmill requirements are delivered cut-to-length (CTL), with 16’ logs specifically directed to Atikokan, 10’ logs to Thunder Bay, and 9’ logs to Ignace. The remaining 70 per cent of Thunder Bay’s log diet is in tree-length form.
Sawmill construction occurred on an aggressive timeline and was completed in only 13 months. Site development was handled by Rainy Lake Tribal Construction, while the 220’ x 40’ building construction was performed by Constructions Fabmek Inc. The mechanical contractor was Quebec-based Groupe KTG, the electrical contractor was Grimmard Electric, controls and optimization was managed by Comact and Pacificon Systems Ltd., and the dust collection system was provided by Rodrigue Metal. Project management was by CLLB Consulting while B-Team Consulting oversaw the mill construction.
Resolute carefully evaluated the most cost effective way to install the breakdown line in Atikokan, working with CLLB Consulting to design the mill. Resolute chose the option of using Comact equipment from closed Resolute mills in Quebec and Nova Scotia, and re-purposing them in Atikokan. The only new item on the breakdown line is Comact’s TBL3 optimized sawing/chipping/profiling equipment, which offers single-pass cant sawing and profiling. This equipment was also part of the investment that Resolute made at its Thunder Bay sawmill, where Maxime Langlais is the general manager. He is general manager for all of Resolute’s sawmills in Ontario, with Gilles Plante working as general superintendent for the Atikokan sawmill.
Martel says there is tremendous value to having the same technology deployed in both Atikokan and Thunder Bay to standardize and simplify the technical knowledge required to operate the breakdown equipment in any of the company’s Ontario sawmills.
“One of our biggest challenges is finding qualified people with sawmill experience, particularly in trades as well as operations,” he says. “So having similar equipment two hours away makes sense. It sounds like Atikokan and Ignace are close, but they are extremely remote from key suppliers. The challenge we face is the same as every other mill in North America right now, which is finding qualified tradespeople, electricians, millwrights, and employees skilled in optimization.”
The sawmill infeed sends logs along two infeed decks leading to either a 17” or 22” Nicholson debarker, and then into three sorting bins. The logs are then processed through a Comact canter-quad single length infeed (SLI), through the Comact TBL3 curve sawing gang, and then through a Comact optimized board edger, trimmer, 45-bin sorter, stacker and Signode strapper.
Wellons Canada provided the sawmill’s two direct fired with natural gas lumber drying kilns. One is a new 154 ft double track; the second is a 134 ft Wellons double track kiln that was relocated from a Resolute facility in Nova Scotia, extended to 154 ft and updated with a new lo-NOx combustor to satisfy Ontario regulations.
The planer and planing line was provided by USNR, and completed with a Comact GradExpert computerized lumber grading system. Martel says installing Comact’s GradExpert technology in Atikokan was, “an easy decision, as we operate the GradExpert in all of Resolute’s high-speed planing mills and partnered with Comact to develop this grading platform since the first unit was installed at Thunder Bay over a decade ago.”
The Atikokan sawmill is part of a cluster of forest industry assets that Resolute operates in northwestern Ontario. The company has invested $150 million in northwestern Ontario in recent years to build the new sawmill near Atikokan, restart the stud mill in Ignace, upgrade its sawmill in Thunder Bay, construct a 65-megawatt, combined heat and power (CHP) facility, and a 45,000 tonne wood pellet plant at Thunder Bay. The pellet mill supplies Ontario Power Generation (OPG) with this biofuel as part of the utility’s strategy to phase out coal-fired power generation.
All of the company’s facilities in this geographic area are somewhat integrated, with studs from the Ignace mill sent for dressing to the new planer mill in Atikokan, and residuals from the sawmills going to support Resolute’s pulp, paper, power, and pellet operations in Thunder Bay.
Martel says it feels great to have nearly reached full production in Atikokan, but there is still a lot of work to do to optimize each location by focusing on the continued development of employee experience and knowledge of sawmilling operations. He adds that one major benefit from investing in restarting and building new sawmills in that region is greater wood utilization in the forest.
“By building more sawmills, we are reducing the amount of timber that we need to chip in the forest to feed our pulp and paper assets,” he says. “We are optimizing sawlogs among our three sawmills, pulp wood for our pulp and paper operation, and roadside residues as biomass for the CHP facility in Thunder Bay.”
There is no doubt that this major investment by the company has meant the return of good paying and steady jobs to economically struggling and remote communities like Atikokan and Ignace, not only at the sawmill level, but also in logging, construction, and other services that support the local forest industry. These investments have also provided opportunities for jobs and business ventures for a number of First Nations communities in the area.
“Our focus even before we announced Atikokan was to work in partnership with the local First Nations, whose members not only work at the Resolute mills, but also participate in supplying many of the key contract services required to operate the mills,” says Martel. “Over $100 million in contracts with First Nations companies were developed as part of the Atikokan and Ignace start-ups.”
Martel says what made the company’s overall northwestern Ontario investment plan viable was the Ontario government’s forest allocations to support these facilities. They became available as a consequence of the industry downturn back in 2008, which created a surplus of merchantable wood in the province. Resolute responded by developing a capital investment plan that would see a welcome return of the wood products sector in northwestern Ontario.
However, Resolute is concerned about the potential impact of new wood harvest guidelines being used by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). The new guidelines are motivated by the province’s Endangered Species Act, specifically around maintaining caribou habitat and new Forest Management Guidelines for Boreal Landscapes. This new set of forest planning rules, “will result in a significant reduction in wood supply in Ontario, but we are not sure of how it will affect our operations because MNR can’t tell us what the impacts will be yet,” says Martel.
The potential impact could become more clear when the company’s first forest management license comes up for renewal over the next few years.
On the Cover:
A Tigercat 870C buncher at work for D. Lind Contracting in B.C. In this issue, Logging and Sawmilling Journal looks at the situation the forest industry is facing with an increasingly older workforce, and where future equipment operators are going come from, beginning on page 4. (Cover photo courtesy of The Inland Group).
Where are the industry’s future employees going to come from?
There is growing concern in the forest industry about where future loggers and equipment operators are going to come from—and a B.C. logging company is taking action in its own backyard, working closely with a local high school to encourage students to look at the forest industry for their careers.
A new look for B.C.’s coastal forest industry
Forest management in B.C.’s Sea to Sky Corridor has taken on a new look, with majority-owned First Nations companies, such as Sqomish Forestry LP, now being large forestry players in the region.
Forest safety—by satellite
Satellite technology is transforming lone worker safety in the forest industry by ensuring no worker is ever without access to a vital line of communications in the remote locations so common to the industry.
Resolute ramps up Atikokan sawmill
Resolute Forest Products is ramping up its brand new sawmill near Atikokan, Ontario, part of the company’s overall investment of $150 million in the region, creating more than 200 jobs.
A family logging affair
Chris Weare of Nova Scotia’s R&C Weare Logging has readily stepped up to the plate—with the support of family—in running their logging business, a heckuva of a busy business affair with an equipment line-up that includes 13 harvesting machines, 10 tractor trailers hauling wood, and roadbuilding gear.
Alberta’s Spray Lake Sawmills has bounced back from the economic downturn, and is even stronger now thanks to consistent mill improvements—and it is looking to grow its treated wood program.
Getting ready for legal pot
The imminent legalization of marijuana—which could happen as early as this year—provides a good reason for forest companies of all sizes to prepare themselves with at least a well-defined and communicated substance abuse policy.
Building business-and a safe workplace
Ontario logger John Fleming has won two health and safety awards, and has found that in addition to helping build a safe workplace, the awards have helped build his business.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Jim Stirling on how B.C. is dealing with the spruce bark beetle on steroids, and possible containment strategies.