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When I began working at Mead Paper as an accountant in 1979, the Kingsport location had three paper machines, a woodyard, a pulp mill, utilities, and converting operations just to name the basics.

Back then, Kingsporters shared the road with flatbed trucks lumbering along with huge logs on their way to the woodyard entrance on West Center Street. Foresters had purchased specific types and quantities of wood for the mill.

The logs would be unloaded, chipped and then sent to the pulp mill, where the chips were mixed with water and chemicals in a huge pressure cooker (digester) to separate and preserve the wood fiber from the other materials.

These fibers were bleached and mixed with other materials to satisfy the specifications for the type of paper being manufactured. This included coated grades used by Playboy and other glossy magazines, colored paper for tablets, or super refined sheeted paper which could handle a commercial-sized Xerox machine running ream after ream through its copiers without the paper jamming.

This latter grade of paper was made on the largest machine, Number 5, which was installed circa 1965 sporting the first computer-operated process control system in the United States.

The mill had employed generations of families and was considered to be a great place to work. I feel very honored to have worked alongside a lot of wonderful people there.

Times changed. The “fine paper” market was shrinking with no end in sight. Thanks to a lot of hard work by our city government, Chamber of Commerce, KEDB and others, Domtar plans to begin its strategic move away from fine paper by converting Kingsport’s machine and its auxiliary operations to a containerboard machine plant.

Based on a Domtar Aug. 7 earnings call with CEO John D. Williams transcript provided by Motley Fool, Domtar chose Kingsport to make high-quality, recycled linerboard and medium due to its scale, capabilities and geographics.

This mill has “the potential to be one of the lowest cost ... mills in the country” which is partially due to the “high-quality paper machine” (a relatively new machine sufficiently large to provide good cost per ton economies of scale).

Williams noted our desirable geographical location in terms of potential suppliers of recycled paper and the mill’s customers. He said this was a “strategic first step toward building a value- adding business in the containerboard market.” (Value adding is business jargon for finding ways to add bells and whistles or customization to a product so you can charge more with most of the added price hopefully going to your bottom line.)

Voith, another globally respected company, will provide the stock preparation machinery and technology designed to disintegrate recycled paper products, clean and screen/remove large non-fiber elements (rejects) including plastics and glass before sending it for further prep.

I assume that this slurry will be piped to one end of the long converted machine and sprayed onto an expansive, fast-moving horizontal screen (fabric), which will sieve much of the liquid away, forming a huge continuous sheet that is then picked up by successive rapidly moving “felts” exposing it to further drying and refining processes.

The machine will eventually spit the original wet slurry out at the other end as containerboard. The slurry must have the right characteristics to prevent breaking during this arduous process. Voith’s repulping machines, which I’ve seen online, will be part of a totally different stock preparation system than that of the Mead Paper pulp mill I remember.

Based on the plentiful but vague information publicly available regarding Domtar’s and Voith’s plans and EPA commentary on containerboard mills in general, this plant should be superior to its old incarnation in terms of water and energy usage as well as to air quality.

I found nothing online as to which company will modify the paper machine. But we will no longer breathe particulates related to the huge piles of wood chips and their processing.

We probably won’t smell any pulping/bleaching chemicals, although I was unable to determine if the stock preparation design will be totally mechanical.

It will be interesting to see flatbed trucks carrying off huge pressure vessels such as digesters and power boilers (or parts thereof) on their way to be scrapped or to new homes for use at other paper mills.

This is a very welcome development for downtown Kingsport’s future.

Debbie Arrington lives in Kingsport and has earned degrees in history and accounting. You can email her at debarrington@hotmail.com.