By Paul MacDonald
Aproposal put together by a logger and a trucker a few years’ back for a new sawmill to make use of under-utilized small logs is now a reality, turning out upwards of 200 million board feet of Southern Yellow Pine a year at the relatively new $65 million (U.S.) Two Rivers Lumber sawmill in southwestern Alabama—and British Columbia’s BID Group was instrumental in building the state-of-the-art mill.
More Canadian forest industry involvement is soon to come for this region of Alabama, with B.C.’s Pinnacle Renewable Energy announcing a $99 million (U.S.) industrial wood pellet production plant, that will be located nearby.
Two Rivers Lumber is owned by Roy Geiger, owner of logging company Sumter Timber, Jay McElroy, owner of McElroy Trucking, and Jay’s brother, Sean McElroy. The mill’s name comes from its location, just south of where two rivers, the Black Warrior and Tombigbee, come together in the town of Demopolis, in Alabama.
Geiger has been a logger and log broker in this area of Alabama for more than 30 years, and he knows the area, and the forest industry in the region, well.
He noted that pulp and paper operations are the focus for the industry in this part of Alabama. Over the years, there has been reduced demand for small sawlogs, with the closure of several sawmills.
“We’ve had more than 20 years of growth in local forests, and sawlogs, since that consumption has gone off the market,” he said. “The wood has been hauled to other sawmills, but the economics are not as good as when the local sawmills were operating.
“That was what really started the whole idea and discussion about the Two Rivers sawmill,” he explained.
Before the project moved ahead, Geiger and McElroy diligently carried out research, and talked with the Forest Products Development Centre of Alabama.
“I felt I knew what the regional wood supply was, but I did not have the hard data,” said Geiger. “So we worked with them to do some growth studies, and what we came up with was a more than adequate supply of timber in the region to run a new sawmill operation.”
They looked at a few possible locations in the area, but one site in particular offered a tremendous headstart in building a sawmill: some years earlier, a company had built a plant, including a 110,000 square foot building, that had been used for manufacturing waste containers and associated equipment for Waste Management Inc.
“It had been shut down for about 15 years, but the building was still in good shape, and a lot of the infrastructure that we would need for the mill—the building, an office, roads—was already there,” says Geiger.
“We looked at it, and had several mill-related equipment companies come and have a look. Our concept was to see if we could retrofit it, and build the sawmill there.”
The response from these companies was less than positive about that approach, though, he said.
But they also talked with Randall Robinson, who had worked for a sawmill in the region, and he introduced the Two Rivers partners to the BID Group, and its then-CEO, Brian Fehr.
“When the BID Group looked at it, Brian simply said, ‘yes, we can do this’,” recalls Geiger. Which is exactly what the partners wanted to hear, since they would be able to save money, and time, by using the existing building and infrastructure.
At around the same time, the BID Group was finishing work on a sawmill, for Biewer Lumber, about 80 miles to the west, in Newton, Mississippi.
“What they did was take almost the exact same design of the Biewer sawmill and incorporated it into the facility in Demopolis—it’s kind of a copy of the Biewer mill.”
Geiger said they had toured the Biewer sawmill, and also had toured some Canadian sawmills, as part of a fact-finding process. Initially, they were going to go the route of purchasing individual pieces of equipment for the new mill, dealing with a number of different suppliers.
But getting the thumbs-up from Brian Fehr and the BID Group that they could work with the existing building in Demopolis was the tipping point in going with the BID Group, and their turnkey approach. BID’s fixed cost approach was also a plus for the partners.
“At the beginning, we had estimates of costs from other suppliers that were all over the map,” says Geiger. Not being able to get firm timelines and costs left the two partners, who had little experience in sawmilling, feeling uneasy.
“We could not get a sense of what it was going to cost to build the mill. But BID gave us an outline of what they were going to be building, and what we were going to pay—and that’s exactly how it went.
“We had no sawmilling experience, but we had looked at the Biewer mill several times— and we felt that if we were able to duplicate that, with similar equipment and working with the same contractor, we saw no downside. That’s the reason we took the route with the BID Group.”
The existing metal building in Demopolis that gave the Two Rivers project a head start measures 220 feet wide and 500 feet long—about the size of the mill building of the Biewer mill operation. “It was within 20 feet either way,” says Geiger. “It was as close as we could possibly get to what we needed with the luck of working with an existing building.”
They started with a 138-acre site which has since been expanded to accommodate the soon-to-be-built Pinnacle pellet mill.
Very little site work was required, in comparison to a greenfield mill. “I’d say that our civil and excavation work was probably less than 15 per cent of what you’d need for a greenfield mill.” The site was flat; they had to relocate a rail spur, and installed some ditches and drainage.
In terms of the construction schedule, they had an extraordinarily fast timeline. Work started on the mill on January 9, 2017, and they were cutting lumber on the first production shift August 28.
“It was amazing to watch—they never missed a beat,” says Geiger. “We started in the middle of winter, but we already had the building in place, so they were able to move ahead and pour the foundations for the mill equipment.”
Just how much of a head start did having the building represent?
“Well, because we did the construction start in January and we would have had to do all the dirt work, without the building, I think it would have taken a good five months longer.”
Though it is based in B.C., the BID Group established a $3 million manufacturing facility in Dorchester County, South Carolina in 2013, featuring more than 40,000 square feet of manufacturing space, to service the U.S. South.
The Two Rivers sawmill features state-of- the-art technologies specifically designed, supplied, and installed by the BID Group, and the companies under its corporate umbrella. The mill includes a Comact optimized log bucking system, with a Comact multi-saw merchandizer, a Comact high recovery saw line with profiling systems, and a fully-automated lumber handling and stacking system. Saw filing is contracted out to U.S. Blades.
Lumber is dried through two DelTech DPK dual path continuous kilns. Once dried, the lumber is finished in the planer mill that is equipped with a Miller high speed planer. Two Rivers has a Comact GradExpert TM 2.0 automated lumber grading system where lumber is graded, sorted and packaged through an automated lumber handling system. The operation has a 50-bin Comact sorter, leading to a dual fork stacker followed by two Signode strapping lines. Two Rivers have installed two heavy duty Signode BPX automatic strapping systems with modular technology.
At the time of the Two Rivers construction, the Variable Tool Opening (VTO) debarker, offered through Comact, was in its late stages of development. The mill ran a few months with BID’s “air seal” debarker and the VTO was installed after the mill was up and running. Two Rivers currently has two rings in its Comact debarker. It runs the Comact air seal ring, and alternates to the VTO ring to assist with testing changes as the VTO is perfected.
BID Group says that the VTO offers ultra-high speed and unmatched results in removing bark, while minimizing tear-out and damage to logs.It has all-electric actuation with no air seal, which contributes to a much higher rim speed. The result is more feet processed per minute.
Geiger reports that there were no hiccups in the delivery or installation of equipment at Two Rivers. “What BID Group did not do themselves, they sub-contracted out themselves.” Geiger agreed that when you have a number of different suppliers or contractors on a building site, there is the potential for them to get in each other’s way.
“But when it came down to the work getting done, there was no pointing of fingers, there was no one saying they couldn’t do their work because one of the other suppliers or contractors was behind—we had none of that.”
BID handled the entire project and the mill owners were able to deal with one person on the site, who oversaw everything, from the concrete being poured to the electrical work. “From that standpoint, I think we had a lot smoother build because we did not have competing contractors out there.”
One area that Geiger and McElroy were able to provide valuable insight into was the millyard, mobile equipment and infeed side of the Two Rivers mill.
“Over 35 years with Sumter Timber, we’ve hauled timber to a lot of different mill locations, so I’m somewhat familiar with sawmills.” And very familiar with millyards, and yard traffic.
“It was kind of a joke with the BID Group folks that they had never seen two people—Jay and myself—as interested in mill traffic flow as we were,” says Geiger, laughing.
“We had a lot of discussions about what would work best at the mill, and we brought our ideas about how the log trucks would flow, how they would be unloaded, how they would come in and out of the yard in a timely way, with little crossover. I think we brought a lot of expertise to the table in that regard.”
The end result has got to be one of the most well designed, and safest, millyards in the region, if not the entire U.S. South.
Geiger was very involved in the selection of mobile equipment in the yard.
“I was very involved in all the rolling stock—I’ve bought and operated a lot of large equipment over the last 35 years, so I’m pretty familiar with spec’ing and buying equipment.”
In terms of mobile equipment, the mill has a Cat 320 track knuckleboom loader and a John Deere 744K wheel loader with quick attach bucket and log forks, that work the woodyard. All stacked lumber is handled with Taylor 160 and 350 forklifts.
The log trucks enter the yard over Toledo scales and then move to two DeShazo monorail cranes for unloading, with the logs going into storage or on to the infeed deck.
It’s been a while since the start-up of the Two Rivers mill, and the company has looked at tweaking the lube system for the mill, and making some changes to the chipping heads. “But I think we are fairly close to where we want to be, in terms of production,” says Geiger. Randall Robinson, who helped guide the project when it was starting out, is now mill manager.
Geiger explained that the mill was designed to utilize local loblolly pine plantation timber. “We don’t take anything over a 20” butt, and it all goes down to a 7” merchantable top.” They manufacture mostly dimension product, 2 X 4 through to 2 X 10, in lengths from eight to 20 foot. At capacity, they will consume 130 truckloads of logs per day, with Geiger’s Sumter Timber being a major supplier of those logs.
The Two Rivers mill would be the envy of most Canadian sawmills, with haul distances averaging only about 30 miles. “When we did the studies, it showed a 14-year supply of standing inventory, with 1.7 million tons of annual growth, and we are consuming 700,000 tons every year. So there is a substantial amount of growing inventory out there in excess of what we use.” Geiger says the average rotation for timber going through the mill is 28 to 30 years.
So after three decades of being on the logging side, how is it being involved on the mill side now?
“I’m really enjoying it,” says Geiger. “It brings a whole new dimension to the business in that we’re able to have more control on the mill side.”
Loggers can be at the tail end of the whip, being subject to the ups and downs of the demands from sawmills for timber. “With having Two Rivers, we can kind of regulate and try to do a little more pre-planning.”
When the Pinnacle wood pellet operation starts up in 2021, adjacent to the sawmill, Two Rivers will be suppling fibre to it. Two Rivers is a part owner of the new pellet plant, as is forest company Westervelt. The new plant will be producing 360,000 tonnes of pellets annually. Among the equipment suppliers to the new pellet operation is Buttner, which will be supplying an energy and dryer system.
While Two Rivers lumber is shipped by rail or truck (with some trucks supplied by McElroy Truck Lines), the river location will be a tremendous asset for the new operation, as most of the pellets will be shipped by water to the port of Mobile, Alabama.
“When we started Two Rivers, I always felt that somewhere down the line that river transportation would be an asset to us,” says Geiger. “We looked at two other sites, but this was the site that offered river access.” And that all-important existing building that allowed them to move ahead with the project in a much speedier fashion.
Geiger notes that this stretch of forest industry plants along the Tombigbee River provides hundreds of jobs in the mills, and in logging, to the small town of Demopolis, with its population of 7,500. In addition to the Two Rivers sawmill, there is a WestRock paper plant, and the soon to come pellet operation. Combined, the three operations along this stretch of land in rural Alabama will be one of the largest consumers of wood in all of the southeastern U.S.
“I really enjoyed developing Two Rivers, and I’m enjoying seeing the pellet mill develop now,” says Geiger.
“I’m seeing something that we envisioned 10 years ago coming together and it’s pretty exciting.”
On the Cover:
Freya Logging has proven to be a versatile and diversified logging contractor in the B.C. Interior, taking on a range of logging jobs, including commercial thinning, with a variety of harvesting equipment, such as a Ponsse Buffalo King forwarder. Watch for the story on Freya Logging in the next issue of Logging and Sawmilling Journal (Cover photo courtesy of Freya Logging).
Keeping the pedal to the metal in beetle battle …
Alberta is working hard to keep its foot on the gas in battling the mountain pine beetle, but the beetle keeps knocking on Saskatchewan’s western door.
LSJ Exclusive—Sawmill Supplier Forum
To help readers keep on top of new equipment in these uncertain times, and help mill equipment suppliers share information with their customers, we’ve included a special feature in this issue of Logging and Sawmilling Journal— “The Sawmill Supplier Forum”.
Maxing out on communications tools—in logging
Alberta logger Seth Dickinson is gaining benefits on a number of fronts using communications tools now available on John Deere logging equipment.
B.C. firm key to building new Alabama sawmill
A new sawmill to make use of under-utilized small logs is now turning out upwards of 200 million board feet of lumber a year at the relatively new $65 million (U.S.) Two Rivers Lumber sawmill in southwestern Alabama—and B.C.’s BID Group was instrumental in building the state-of-the-art mill.
Tolko’s new pellet, energy plant in Alberta
Despite the COVID-19 situation, Tolko Industries has been busy of late, completing work on a new state-of-the-art $60 million pellet plant, and $33 million energy facility, in Alberta.
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 (CWFC), and the Faculty of Forestry at the University of B.C.
The Last Word
B.C.’s forestry communities are fed up and frustrated with the industry’s ups and downs—and loss of jobs, says Jim Stirling.