Domtar’s Kingsport mill conversion underway
Above: Domtar Kingsport Mill Manager Troy Wilson surveys demolition work. Photo by Scott Robertson
New Mill Manager Troy Wilson breaks down the timeline to completion
When Troy Wilson was part of a mill start-up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1994, he had no idea he was writing his ticket to Kingsport. But that charter team experience made him the go-to-guy when, in 2020, Domtar decided to convert its Kingsport operation from printer paper manufacturing to containerboard.
“When the decision was made that we were going to convert this mill here in Kingsport, we looked around our company and asked, ‘who knows how to do this?’” Wilson says. “Me and Steve Henry, senior VP in Domtar, were the only ones who had ever done this. So, Charlie (Floyd, Domtar VP who managed the Kingsport mill for more than 10 years) called me and said, ‘Look, I need your expertise because we have no one that knows anything about this new product.”
At that point in June 2020, Wilson was production manager at the company’s Johnsonburg, Pa., mill. “So, I got really involved in this project just because I had done this in my life and had been a part of what we’re going to do here.
“I sat in meetings and there would be 40 people in a call and because of my experience and background in the grades we’re going to run now and this conversion, I would be the only one talking,” Wilson says. “Everybody was just listening. Something would come up and they would say, ‘well, what is that?’ and I would say, ‘well, that’s a trommel screen.’ They’d say, ‘trommel screen – how many of them do we need?’ and I would say, ‘we need two.’ They’d ask, ‘what does that thing do?’ and that was the way it was. That’s how it went every day.
“As we’ve moved along, though, the guys that work here and the guys I work with – they’re catching on,” Wilson says. “They’re starting to gain that expertise a little bit and starting to have the knowledge of what we’re building here.”
The company had originally told Wilson he’d devote around 10 percent of his time to the Kingsport project, but that percentage quickly grew from 10 to 100. Wilson spent a great deal of time working with then-Kingsport Mill Manager Marty Barfield. Barfield, whose health was declining, recommended that Wilson take his place upon his retirement. Barfield passed away in December.
“Since November we have been doing site preparation,” Wilson says. “We’re tearing down a lot of buildings. This mill was built in 1916, so it’s been here for over 100 years. A lot of those old buildings are going away and we’re replacing them with new buildings – warehouses, processes building. So, the phase we’re in now – we have to gather all the permits so we can do the construction under the air permits and water permits. Some of those permits are already approved, so we can do demolition.”
And while the high walls of the old mill keep it hidden from passersby, that demolition is well underway. “We’ll continue this demo and this site preparation all the way through the rest of this year,” Wilson says. “Along with that, we will be working on operational readiness – preparing the mill for start-up.”
That operational readiness piece, Wilson says, includes starting the rehiring process for past mill employees, a process that will occur in 2021. “At some point in there, we’ll have a dot in our schedule that says, ‘this is when we bring the operators back,” Wilson says. “That will be when we pick up the phone and say, ‘hey, are you still interested in a job at the mill in Kingsport?’
“We will bring them back at some point later this year and start that training process,” Wilson says. “We’ll prepare them to understand how to run the mill and give them the tools to do that with.”
In early 2022, Wilson says, construction will begin on the massive OCC warehouse and portal building. It’s in that space that the old corrugated container (OCC) materwial will be brought on-site and stored for use in production. A smaller warehouse for finished product will also be built on the site, with the existing rail spur going into that building.
During the summer of 2022, “we’ll start to put all the machine in place. So, next year should be basically instruction and erection of the equipment. Then, in the first quarter of 2023, we should have a mill that we can start up and run.”