Our View: City, region flourish with two vital plants


June 9, 2023

How fortunate can one town be? That’s a question we can all ask ourselves as Cloquet’s two manufacturing plants celebrate milestone anniversaries in 2023.

With the USG ceiling tile plant celebrating its 100th anniversary and the nearby Sappi pulp and paper mill reaching its 125th consecutive year of operation, it’s the right time to reflect on what those businesses mean to the city and its people.

They’re two of our most prominent employers and have been throughout their timelines here. Working at the plants has supported generations of employees and their families. Each of the mills has boasted an opportunity at career longevity, with 25 years of service being the rule and not the exception.

“We’re really proud of that,” USG plant manager Jenna Leger told us last week. “We’re proud of the fact that we have people who continue to build their career with us.”

Both plants have learned from their pasts, which were marked by riskier times, when injuries and illness were part of the culture. Now, both mills are fully committed to safety and have been for many years. Notably, Sappi has achieved 2 million consecutive personhours without a lost time injury twice in the recent decade. Meanwhile, USG has emerged from a troubling era using asbestos last century, under Conwed ownership, which adversely affected workers’ lung health. The USG mill is now committed to a low dust and particulate environment, using industrial hygiene testing to detect health risks.

Environmentally, both plants treat or recycle water and reintroduce product spoils back into their processes. Once a scourge on the river, Sappi hasn’t damaged the waterway in decades.

“There’s no effluent of ours that goes into the river since 1979,” managing director Tom Radovich said. “A lot of people see foam in the river, and associate it with something we’re putting in and it’s not true. It’s actually the tannins from the surrounding bogs.”

All Sappi water is treated through the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District and returned to Lake Superior via the input and output water lines running to and from the lake to the plant.

Recent interviews with officials from both plants reveal operations teeming with smart, dedicated people driven by solutions and efficiencies.

Ingenuity has kept Sappi afloat and even flourishing during a difficult era for papermaking, one that has seen paper products take a backseat to smart phones, tablets and the internet.

Meanwhile, the USG plant is charged by its German owner, Knauf, with becoming the biggest ceiling tile manufacturer in the United States.

“Knauf is really investing in our growth and in our future,” Leger said. “We’ve got a lot of capital to improve what we’ve got and invest in that next 100 years.”

A proposed dryer replacement project at USG costing $38.5 million was the subject on the Cloquet City Council agenda earlier this week.

That’s more great news.

It all adds up to good fortune for the city of Cloquet, Carlton County and the area.

These plants haven’t just reached milestones, they’re built for more. They’re committed to remaining the backbone of our economy for generations to come. What could be luckier for us than that?


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