New manager working through cogeneration plant challenge at Port Angeles Nippon plant
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Steve Johnson, shown on Tuesday, has taken over as manager of the Nippon Paper Industries USA mill in Port Angeles. Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Steve Johnson, Nippon Paper Industries USA’s new mill manager, is moving one step at a time as he takes charge of a paper-making factory that has yet to fully utilize an $85 million cogeneration plant dedicated in November.

The plant, built to burn woody debris to generate electricity for sale and steam for paper production, has been hobbled by a crack smaller than a thumbnail, Johnson said last week.

The defect was discovered during hydraulic tests of the new boiler, forcing the company to rely on an aging oil boiler that was converted to a biomass burner that Nippon says needs to be replaced.

The irony of a tiny crack shutting down a massive project was not lost on Johnson, 57, whose father, Mike, worked at the plant in the ’60s when it was owned by Crown Zellerbach and who himself has worked at the factory for 13 years, most recently as its technical services and power manager.

“You’re talking about something less than half an inch in literally miles of steel work,” Johnson said.

Johnson could not give an estimate on when the fix will be made.

“We’re not rushing it,” he said. “We’re going to be sure we do it right.

“It could be three weeks, it could be four,” he said. “Anything I say would be a pure guess.”

It also will take at least a month to conduct environmental tests on the plant.

“It’s very detailed, very protracted and will take some time to do that,” Johnson said.

“It’s one more step on the journey.”

The cogeneration plant’s completion was feted in November with a dedication ceremony attended by company officials from Japan who gave speeches under a tent on the company grounds.

They later toasted the project during a sake ceremony at the Red Lion Hotel.

Johnson said last week that Nippon’s ability to sell the cogeneration plant’s electricity is key to the survival of the company, the only mill in the United States that produces telephone-book paper.

“We had to find someone who has a need for green energy,” he said.

“We managed to find outlets that satisfy our production.”

Nippon announced last week that Johnson would fill the position once held by Harold Norlund, who left the company in early March to return to Canada to serve in a management position with Catalyst Paper in Port Alberni.

Johnson, a 39-year-veteran of the industry, started as an hourly laborer on his 18th birthday on the night shift at a Carthage, N.Y., paper mill, a Crown Zellerbach factory that manufactured tissue and paper towels.

He went to high school during the day.

Johnson has worked at mills in the Northeast, South and Midwest in such places as Glens Falls, N.Y., Baton Rouge, La., and Columbus, Ohio — “anywhere you can imagine where a paper mill would be,” he said.

“We’ve been around a bit.”

Johnson has seen the paper industry decline but sees a future for Nippon, and not only through selling electricity.

“If I was to dream today, I would redeploy the paper machines to make new types of paper that people want and move away from directory paper, and have a going paper mill and ‘cogen’ plant that keeps our people working,” he said.

Nippon’s annual payroll of more than $25 million “I know makes a big impact” on Port Angeles, Johnson said.

“I know it keeps a lot of other suppliers working,” he added.

The Port Angeles resident also said he has the same desire to protect the environment as those who unsuccessfully challenged the cogeneration project over pollution concerns.

“We’re going to live within the rules in the permit, period,” he said.

“We’re just going to do the right thing.”

Another goal is to build trust “one day at a time” among union employees who last March went on a nearly weeklong, contract-related strike, said Johnson, a former union member.

“I think I have generally good relations with the employees,” he said.

“I get out and talk to them, and I will continue to do so.”

Johnson will have ample opportunity considering his office is in the mill itself, not Nippon’s administrative building, where Norlund’s former office has a picture-window view of the factory.

“I asked to be able to stay in the mill to keep a presence in the mill,” he said.

“I’m in the middle of operations, where I wanted to be, here with all the other people.

“I’m just Steve. That’s all I am.”

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 01. 2014 7:22PM
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