Weyerhaeuser’s massive new $260-million engineered wood products plant in Kenora is the largest mill of its kind in the world.
By Dave Lammers
For years, Kenora had been trying to reel in the big one. An angler’s paradise located on Lake of the Woods in northwestern Ontario, the small city landed the promise of an oriented strand board mill back in the mid-1990s. A sign marking the future site of the mill was erected just outside of town on the Trans-Canada Highway for everyone to see. But the billboard became an eyesore when—after three years—the site of the proposed OSB mill remained vacant.
But Kenora decided to try for a bigger fish and convinced the Ontario government to seek new bids on the area’s wood basket. The result was a trophy catch when Weyerhaeuser’s Trus Joist division built a larger mill than Tolko Industries Ltd had originally proposed—a $260-million engineered wood products facility that started operations in October.
The third mill of its kind and the largest in the world, Trus Joist Kenora produces TimberStrand, a trademarked state-of-the-art wood product that involves cutting low-grade species—mostly aspen—into thin strips and bonding them together under high pressure and temperature. Strands of wood up to 12 inches long undergo a special steam injection process in the production of a billet 64 feet by eight feet, and up to 3.5 inches thick. Logs enter the front of the mill and are debarked, dried, resinated, pressed and sawn into a variety of dimensions. The whole process takes about 45 minutes.
TimberStrand is used in residential and commercial construction for headers, rim board, flange stock for I-joists, as well as long-length 2x4s and 2x6s. The product is touted for its strength and dimensional accuracy. Trus Joist boasts the ability to take low-grade logs and turn out a high quality product. “There are lots of people who produce engineered lumber products, but nothing like TimberStrand,” says Trus Joist Kenora manager Terry Brennan. “It’s dry, it doesn’t twist or warp—those are the main attributes.” In fact, demand for the product is so high that production at the company’s other two mills—located in Deerwood, Minnesota and Hazard, Kentucky—has been completely sold out in the past.
The Kenora facility is 30 per cent larger than these other plants, that are five and 10 years old respectively. The Kenora mill sits on 150 acres, approximately 10 kilometres northeast of the city, off the Jones Road. The mill is a total of 400,000 square feet and towers more than 10 stories high. Its features include an ultra-modern ventilation system that exchanges the plant’s air every 20 minutes, as well as a large water reservoir for fire suppression. And while Brennan says the concept of the mill is the same as the other two plants, the equipment varies slightly at each machine centre inside the plant. The company won’t divulge many details about its production process, but Brennan credits computer technology for much of the production success. “It has a lot to do with our control systems,” he says. “Our PLC systems are state-of-the-art.
They control the process equipment.” Brennan adds the company brought in equipment from across North America and Europe for the Kenora plant. The mill operated one 12-hour shift for the first three months and by this past December had reached 30 per cent capacity. A second shift was scheduled to be added early in 2003, with a goal of running seven days a week and eventually producing to capacity. Trus Joist Kenora will service all of Canada and 70 per cent of its product will be exported to the mid-western and western United States. “The markets are staying relatively strong given the whole downturn in the lumber industry,” says Brennan. “We’ve seen some softening in prior years, but not a disaster by any means.”
The mill employs 200 people, 60 of whom are of aboriginal descent. The high number of aboriginal workers is a result of a partnership between Trus Joist and the Treaty #3 Working Group, representing a dozen First Nation communities in the Kenora area. A government-sponsored $2.3 million pre-employment training program resulted in dozens of First Nations participants obtaining a Grade 12 equivalency in order to apply for a position at the mill. “We developed a working relationship with Trus Joist,” says Linda Cobiness, program development coordinator for Treaty #3 Working Group. The training program also taught participants such courses as first aid, WHMIS, computer skills, job search and job readiness.
In 2002, the Ontario ministry of natural resources granted Trus Joist the sustainable forest licence (SFL) for the Kenora forest management unit. Weyerhaeuser’s Dryden area forests also supply wood to the mill and additional wood is purchased from Abitibi-Consolidated, which operates the Whiskey Jack Forest in the Kenora area. There were few problems associated with the start-up of the mill, says Brennan, adding it opened more than a month ahead of schedule. The biggest challenge in the construction of the plantwas a short building season in northwestern Ontario, where winters are long and temperatures dip to minus 40 Celsius.
Site work began in the spring of 2001 and more than 700 workers were contracted in order to have the building enclosed by October of the same year. “With the need to have the building up and enclosed, there’s basically a short window to do that from spring until fall, when the snow sets in again,” explains Brennan. “And then to keep the building heated with temporary heat over winter to allow construction to continue was a big challenge and a big cost.”
The other major challenge was running sewer and water lines from the city to the mill, which requires up to two million litres of water a day. “Going nine kilometres basically through solid rock is a bit of a challenge,” notes Kenora mayor Dave Canfield, talking about the $16.5 million project coordinated by the municipality. All levels of government shared the cost with FEDNOR contributing $5 million, the Ontario Heritage Board adding $5 million and the City of Kenora paying the balance of $6.5 million.
It’s all part of a plan to create an “industrial park” outside the city, explains Canfield, instead of locating new industry within the city limits. “You don’t want an industrial park in the middle of your community,” says Canfield. “It’s far enough away from town that there are minimal (environmental) effects.” Canfield, who is a full-time crane operator for Kenora’s Abitibi-Consolidated, recalls the disappointment of the failed proposal by Tolko.
The situation went on for several years, with no significant moves forward to build the OSB plant, says Canfield. Municipal leaders successfully lobbied the ministry of natural resources to award the wood basket to another company—a move that paid off for the city. “This is better for us because it’s kind of a revolutionary product and at the same time quite a few more jobs.” The opening of Trus Joist Kenora also helped the city recover from the loss of a large number of jobs at Abitibi-Consolidated, when the company shut down one of its three paper machines in May 2001.
Some of those workers have found work in the new mill. Kenora is also looking for other tenants to join Trus Joist in its industrial park. “Because this is an engineered forest product and a product for the future, we are going to try and create more jobs in the value-added sector by combining some of the other products that are produced here and create some other opportunities in remanufacturing,” says Canfield.
He notes the city has two producers of dimensional lumber—Kenora Forest Products, which produces dimensional lumber (mostly 2x4s and 2x6s in eight foot) and Devlin Timber, which produces lumber in a variety of sizes. “I have this vision of a ‘house in a box,’ where we could actually manufacture complete homes right here,” says Canfield. “It’s a good idea,” says Brennan, about the creation of an industrial park. “It makes it a lot easier when a company wants to relocate—the services are there—it’s a huge bonus.” “For quality of life and attraction of high quality employees it’s a good area,” he adds. “It’s close to major transportation routes—we’re just off the Trans-Canada Highway, and there’s good rail service. And good community acceptance of the project.”Additional Info
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