by Peter Riviere
One of the town's most enduring symbols is undergoing a metamorphosis as it shrinks from view right before our eyes.
The wood chip pile that has fueled the boilers at Wausau Paper Mill and Groveton Paper Board, producing steam for drying paper, with excess power sold to the eletric grid, is getting smaller.
With a decision to sign a contract for natural gas from the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System, Wausau signaled the end of chips as a boiler fuel.
"We've not put the finishing touches on our capital appropriation request for the Wausau board," said Groveton operations manager Tom Craven of plans on the drawing board for a new, multi-fuel boiler that will run mainly on natural gas.
He said it is probably not economical to stay with chips since the company can control oil prices using purchasing mechanisms such as futures and other strategies.
Craven said "there are more pieces that have to fall into place" before the decision is made to buy the new boiler. "More confidence is needed that the pipeline is going to happen, but it is still key to eliminating a lot of environmental problems for this valley."
"The long and short of it is a reduction in energy and maintenance costs," said Dave Auger, Wausan's purchasing manager.
He said in the interim the mill would shift to No.6 fuel oil to replace the 192,500 tons of high-end sawmill wastes and low-quality chips burned in the boiler.
Groveton Paper Board will maintain its sizable hardwood chip pile, which is used for the fiber in the kraft papermaking process.
Tom Pitts, comptroller of Groveton Paper Board, said any wood yard jobs lost from the switch to fuel oil would be assimilated into indoor work for those employees.
The decision is one more illustration of how competitive forces are shaping the forestry and logging industry these days.