Wilf Sweeney

Celgar celebrates 50 years of operations in Castlegar

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the operation of the Celgar pulpmill. In 1951 the Celanese Corporation and its Canadian subsidiary, Columbia Cellulose, formed the Celgar Development Company (Celgar Limited) and began researching the feasibility of building the first pulp mill in the British Columbia Interior — Celgar.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the operation of the Celgar pulpmill.

In 1951 the Celanese Corporation and its Canadian subsidiary, Columbia Cellulose, formed the Celgar Development Company (Celgar Limited) and began researching the feasibility of building the first pulp mill in the British Columbia Interior — Celgar.

After an extensive forest survey of the Arrow Lakes region, on July 20, 1955 the provincial government awarded timber rights on over 890,000 acres of land to Columbia Cellulose. This was known as TFL No. 23 and came with an annual allowable cut of 22,000,000 cubic feet per year, most of which was within 15 kilometres of the Columbia River and could be transported by water to the old Westley Sawmill site near Castlegar. In return for the licence, Columbia Cellulose agreed to begin building a pulp mill in Castlegar by March 1, 1958 and to complete the construction of the mill by March 1 of 1961.

During the construction of the mill it became apparent that housing was in short supply for Celgar employees and their families, so in 1960 the company purchased 37 acres in Woodland Park (just behind Castleaird Plaza and Safeway today). A local construction company bought eight of those acres and constructed 10 buildings with six units in each building for Celgar employees. Celgar subdivided the remaining land in Woodland Park into 76 building lots which were serviced for water and sewer.  Street lights and sidewalks were added and the lots were offered for sale to employees and other Castlegar residents. Construction of Woodland Park Elementary and Castleaird Plaza followed shortly and the town began to grow.

Once mill construction got underway, a 3,000-man construction crew brought the $50-million venture to life in a brisk year and a half. Castlegar’s economy boomed, the region came to life, and in 1961 Celgar’s 300 new and permanent employees began work at the mill. In the fall of 1962 many of those employees were instrumental in founding Local No. 1 of the Canadian Pulp and Paper Workers Union (CPPW), the predecessor of the PPWC union that represents hourly workers at the mill today.

Columbia Cellulose knew from the outset that Castlegar would be integral to Celgar and vice versa. So much so, that its name, Celgar, is derived from the words cellulose and Castlegar.

Shortly after the Celgar mill was built the B.C. government began construction of the province’s first regional college, Selkirk College.  By 1966 it was clear that the college would not be completed in time for its first semester that fall. Celgar and the college together created a makeshift campus from the bunkhouses Celgar had used to house and feed construction workers during the early days of the mill.

In the fall of 1966, Selkirk College’s first 458 students attended classes at what became known as the ‘bunkhouse campus’. To this day, Selkirk students celebrate the humble beginnings of their college with a symbolic ‘Great Trek’ to commemorate the move from its original Celgar location.

Twenty years and many tons of pulp production later brought a second major change for Celgar and Castlegar. In 1988 Celgar embarked on a four year, $850-million project to expand and modernize its facilities. Although the mill had been built to the highest standards of the day in 1960, by the late 1980s it was beginning to show its age and increased environmental awareness created expectations for improved environmental performance.

The Modernization and Expansion Project transformed Celgar into one of the largest and most advanced pulp mills in Canada, with efficient power generation capabilities and state-of-the-art environmental treatment facilities.

The impact of Celgar’s expansion on the community of Castlegar was immense. The town experienced a construction boom which rivaled that of the early 1960s.

The now thriving economy funded some major community projects such as the revitalization of downtown Castlegar, the building of the Robson Bridge and construction of several new shopping centres.

But after the rise came the fall.  In 1998, the owners of the mill filed for bankruptcy due to weak pulp markets and a high debt load following its massive expansion in the early 1990s. The Celgar mill continued to operate during this period however, under the direction of the banks and KPMG.

In 2003, Mercer International took an interest in the mill and recognized its potential to be a world class asset.

Mercer completed the acquisition of the Celgar mill in February 2005.  Mercer renamed the mill Zellstoff Celgar in keeping with the nomenclature of its two other mills in Germany; Zellstoff Rosenthal and Zellstoff Stendal.

Today Zellstoff Celgar is poised for even greater success. The $64-million Green Energy Project that was launched in 2010 has provided the mill with an opportunity to extract additional value from a renewable resource by maximizing the production of Green Energy as well as producing pulp.

The mill’s new 48-megawatt condensing turbine uses surplus steam, a by-product of the pulping process, to generate electricity for export into the BC Hydro power grid for the benefit of all British Columbians.

Over the past half century the Celgar mill has demonstrated its resilience and long term sustainability.  Zellstoff Celgar is thankful to all of its employees and their families and the residents and businesses of Castlegar and area for their support over the past 50 years.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary in Castlegar, Celgar will be hosting a variety of events this month.

Public tours of the mill will take place July 18-22 starting at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day. You must be at least 12 years old to take part in a tour. Please call ahead to book: 250-365-4238.

The company is also planning a “Concert in the Park” from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on July 23 at the Pass Creek Exhibition Grounds, featuring the bands Roxy and BC/DC. This is a family-oriented, free event. Guests are asked to bring a non-perishable food item to donate to the local food bank.

/Submitted by Zellstoff Celgar


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