KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – The Domtar paper mill in Kingsport shut down production of writing paper in April 2020, as the novel coronavirus pandemic cut budgets by $200 million and over 300 people were laid off.

The mill was idled and was originally supposed to reopen after three months. Then came the announcement that the paper mill would cease to produce uncoated freesheet, but would make recycled linerboard and medium instead.

Ahead of schedule, Domtar’s Kingsport plant manager Troy Wilson told News Channel 11 roughly 170 employees are currently in training to be able to safely produce the brown paper cardboard.

“Now they’re going through their onboarding, their safety training, and they’re learning to run the new operation,” Wilson said. “As far as construction goes, now we’re starting to bring things out of the ground. We have a new warehouse, it’s almost complete. Parts and pieces arrive daily. Some of the process pieces are actually being put in place now.”

He said 685,000 tons of recycled paper a year is to be converted into packaging instead of going to a landfill at the Kingsport mill.

“It’s a $350 million project; we’re converting it from fine paper writing grades to brown board packaging,” Wilson said.

Going from over 300 employees to just over 150, he said Domtar is changing not only in look but production as well.

“How we do work has changed as well; on-site, we’re going to adopt a true flow to work team concept environment here,” he said.

The hourly workforce was brought back to Domtar in three waves starting Nov. 29, 2021, then the second wave began training on Jan. 4, with the final wave returning Jan. 31. The waves followed the construction schedule around the mill.

“This will be new equipment to them, so we’re teaching the operators how to run the new operation at the moment,” Wilson said.

The mill is essentially shrinking, he explained.

“With the new process, we’ve actually become a smaller mill in a sense because a lot of the production areas that we had in place when we were making writing (paper) are gone now. So, we’ll be a 100% recycle facility that will make grade liner and medium and packaging grades here,” he said.

He explained that the chemistry necessary to produce the finer paper Damtar used to make is no longer viable or necessary at the Kingsport mill because of the new production system.

“There’s a little more hustle and bustle than it was. Construction pieces will continue to flow through the summer as systems become available for checkout and commissioning. We’ll be checking out and commissioning those,” he said.

The plant is set to start operations in the fourth quarter of 2022.