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Billerud aims to streamline Wisconsin operations. What could that mean for the Rapids mill?

WISCONSIN RAPIDS (From news reports) - Efforts to restructure operations within Billerud could open up options for the future of the Wisconsin Rapids paper mill.

On May 15, Consolidated Water Power Co. applied for two approvals through the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin that relate to the structure within its parent company, Billerud, the owner of the paper mill in Wisconsin Rapids. The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin then filed a notice of investigation June 29, reviewing the application.

Who's involved?

CWP is a public utility service that provides electricity to three paper mills and about 100 residential and small commercial customers in the Wisconsin Rapids and Biron areas.

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin is a commission under the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and it covers regulations of Wisconsin public utilities like electric, natural gas, water, and combined water and sewer services. Public utilities are regulated by the commission.

What does the application say?

According to the application, CWP requested the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin's approval to transfer its utility operations from Billerud Wisconsin to an "upstream affiliate," Billerud U.S. Energy Holding. CWP also stated Billerud's roll-to-sheet paper converting facility would be transferred from Billerud Wisconsin to Billerud Converting. According to Billerud's website, 130 employees work in the Wisconsin Rapids Converting Facility, producing 320,000 metric tons of sheeting per year.

Shawn Hall, Billerud's director of communications, confirmed CWP's application to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, saying the application was filed as part of Billerud's work to streamline its corporate structure.

According to that document, the approvals would help facilitate a potential sale of the Wisconsin Rapids paper mill for reuse or redevelopment. The paper mill currently owned by Billerud Wisconsin has been idle since Verso shut down operations in 2020, although converting operations have continued on-site.

In the application, CWP states that Sonoco Products Co. also has been operating a tube and core paperboard manufacturing facility within the Rapids mill. The two were previously owned by the same company, but now, the two separate operations are intertwined, sharing electrical infrastructure, machinery and equipment.

The application states that if the transfers within the company are approved, Billerud could potentially sell the Wisconsin Rapids paper mill property and lease space from a new owner to continue its converting operations and Sonoco's operations. According to the document, Billerud could also decide to keep the portion of the Rapids mill property to continue operations and sell the remaining property for reuse or redevelopment.

What happens next?

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin is now reviewing the application.

Meghan Sovey, the commission's communications director, told the Daily Tribune the commission reviews requests like the one CWP filed, and if the group decides to accept the request, it issues a Notice of Investigation, as it did in this case two weeks ago.

As part of its typical process, the commission will now seek input from all utilities involved, interested organizations and members of the public. After collecting all the information it needs, commission staff members will analyze the issue and submit a memorandum for the commission to review. After reviewing, the commission will issue a final decision on the matter.

Sovey said there is no set deadline for the commission to issue its final decision.

Does that mean the mill will be sold?

Not necessarily. While CWP's application points to the potential for a sale, Hall said efforts to reorganize within the company do not mean there are any sales pending.

"Such actions are conducted in the normal course of business and provide greater flexibility for Billerud to consider various strategic options for its operations," Hall said. "It is not indicative of any pending transaction; Billerud does not comment on those types of confidential matters."

Are local leaders ready for a potential sale?

Local leaders have been ready for a potential sale for the last year.

Last summer, a few months after Verso merged with Billerud, the company hadn't shared its plans for the Wisconsin Rapids mill with the public or with the city. As a result, city leaders wanted to work proactively if Billerud would ever sell the property for reuse or redevelopment. The city worked with Vandewalle & Associates, a Madison-based planning and redevelopment firm, to determine good potential uses if the property would ever become available.

A Wisconsin Rapids Recovery and Redevelopment Plan project team held a public meeting in June 2022 and opened an online survey through Sept. 9 where 618 participants shared their thoughts on what types of redevelopment Wisconsin Rapids needed. As a result, top priorities included creating jobs; retaining, expanding and recruiting businesses; reusing the paper mill facilities as much as possible; redeveloping as quickly as possible; mitigating environmental pollution; improving safety; and supporting long-term economic sustainability.

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