Breathing Easier At Smurfit-Stone

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Top packaging products producer installs state-of-the-art environmental reporting solution to ensure compliance with confidence

Jack Kirkland remembers the early days of his career at Smurfit-Stone Container with a grin and a groan. It was 1982. Kirkland began working in the environmental department he now manages at the company's integrated pulp and paper mill in Brewton, Alabama. Hundreds of employees work this massive facility, where trees are ultimately transformed into high quality containerboard and coated bleached board used in corrugated boxes and folding cartons.

It's also where Kirkland, an environmental engineer, became the resident sleuth in order to file important quarterly compliance reports with state and federal environmental agencies. He dug diligently through pages of emissions data from three opacity monitors reading smoke levels in stacks rising from the plant's two power boilers. It was a tedious, labor intensive process; manually finding and noting the dates and times when plant stack discharges were too high and cross referencing operating log books for clues to what caused the jump.

"When the plant equipment is running properly, plant emissions aren't usually a problem. But the slightest malfunction in any part of the process, whether it's a clogged burner, a gas flow problem, low pressure drop across the scrubber, or a long list of other culprits, can cause emissions to rise," explained Kirkland, environmental manager for Smurfit-Stone's pulp and paper mill in Southern Alabama. "It was tough enough manually tracking and reporting data from three air monitoring devices to demonstrate compliance. Imagine trying to do it for nearly 100 devices and dozens of reports."

The Clean Air Act of 1990 has progressively intensified environmental requirements of plants that produce air and water emissions during operations. The Brewton Mill is now required to monitor 7 opacity meters, 5 TRS (Total Reduced Sulphur) meters, and 77 parametric devices to measure plant releases and optimal process flows and meet regulations for continuous compliance throughout the facility.

To position itself to meet the expanding state and federal regulations, Smurfit-Stone, the largest producer of containerboard in North America, began investing $70 million in 2000 for new state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment and emissions monitoring and control devices at the Brewton Mill.

The Glue – Integration and Automation

Operators in five control rooms watch over the massive wood pulping and chemical recovery process. Their primary goals include employee safety and the uninterrupted operation of the pulp and paper mill. Every time the plant has to be shutdown and restarted, due to a malfunction or a host of other reasons, emission levels can rise and cause a temporary break in the company's compliance.

While the upgraded Brewton Mill now had the latest equipment, including the large pressure vessels, blow tanks, and washing system designed to eliminate the natural glue from the wood fiber used in corrugated boxes, it was missing the network glue it needed to give operators and management a real-time view of the plant's environmental performance.

"We developed a good startup, shutdown, malfunction plan for the plant," explained Kirkland. "But we couldn't implement the plan effectively without a system interface that delivers a real-time look at what's going on 24/7 with our operations and emissions."

Kirkland and his team couldn't find a solution to meet all of the facility's mission-critical requirements. An exhaustive search in 2001 turned up a company already very familiar with operations at the Brewton Mill. A team from Prism Systems, a systems integration engineering firm based in nearby Mobile, Alabama, was on site improving the plant's overall process and control system efficiencies with communications and operations infrastructure upgrades.

"We looked at the environmental tracking product the Brewton Mill was considering and a sister plant was installing, and we knew we could develop a much better solution," recalls Michael Darnell, vice president of sales and marketing, Prism Systems. "We worked very closely with Smurfit-Stone's environmental team in developing Prism System's cutting-edge Environmental Reporting Solution, ERS, which provides an automated compliance capability in a single, comprehensive web-based package."

"We had to have a web-based, automated solution that could interface with the plant database, keep up with all of the monitoring devices and their continuous emissions readings, and provide us with some effective preemptive and troubleshooting capabilities," said Kirkland. "If we have a potential emission, we needed the system to alarm and notify the operator. If an actual emission rises above an allowed level, the operator should have the opportunity to minimize the malfunction and emission before it becomes a reportable event."

Open For Business

Prism System's ERS package is built on an open architecture platform using off-the-shelf technology, enabling it to work at a single site or enterprise-wide, across multiple departments, networks, software platforms, and systems to capture all environmental data throughout the plant. Emissions readings from the Brewton Mill monitoring devices are available real-time or anytime over the company intranet, which can be easily accessed by management in the office, on the road, or at corporate headquarters.

The software package provides an intuitive web-based interface, is easy to operate, and is readily scalable, which is a critical requirement for a successful plant dedicated to meeting evolving demand and regulations on the fly. ERS is deployed using a standard Windows-based server architecture, requires no special hardware or client software, and blends in with the plant's other software applications and IT infrastructure.

ERS' ability to interconnect with existing plant infrastructure, including a facility's Distributed Control System (DCS) and data historian systems, which store and compress extensive amounts of information, eliminates the need for redundancy. Instead, organizations can leverage their major infrastructure investments and stop worrying about the compatibility of multiple systems. "Unlike any other solution we considered, Prism Systems' ERS easily interconnects with our existing infrastructure throughout the plant," said Kirkland.

As a result of its open platform, Kirkland can call on Prism Systems to manage and maintain the system and any necessary updates or his mill staff can easily handle the system operation.

"We're constantly upgrading equipment and refining the parameters used to ensure compliance, so our environmental performance platform must be flexible and capable of quickly changing with our needs," explained Kirkland. "The ERS system continuously detects everything that's going on at the plant, automatically generates an internal review, notifies the appropriate employees and management, and goes a long way toward preparing the comprehensive reports we need to meet state and federal regulations."

Smurfit-Stone and Kirkland can cite a long list of benefits realized from its automated ERS system, including its ability to cut across existing networks and equipment platforms, tie old and new plant technologies together, and automate time consuming, manual data collection and reporting processes. The company has experienced a significant reduction in plant malfunctions, non-compliance periods, and in the level of emissions during startup and shutdown stages.

But the biggest benefit, according to Kirkland, is the high level of confidence the Brewton Mill now has in its environmental compliance program. The company has taken note of the ERS success story in Brewton, Alabama, and Prism Systems has now installed the proven tracking and reporting software solution in nine other Smurfit-Stone pulp and paper plants across the U.S.

Compliance Confidence

A lot is riding on the accuracy of the emissions data collected and reported by the Brewton Mill. The plant's operating permit depends on it. More than 500 employees make their living based on it. The mill's general manager is counting on it every year, when he signs a series of quarterly and annual reports, including state MACT (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) reports and the federal Title V certification – a 167-page summary declaring Brewton Mill compliance with reported exceptions.

"Brewton Mill and Smurfit-Stone have always been committed to environmental compliance, and we're more confident than ever in the emissions data at the heart of every state and federal report we submit today," said Kirkland, who still clearly recalls the days he spent manually analyzing the numbers and the nights he didn't sleep as well as he does now. "Prism System's ERS solution is enabling our communities and company-wide management to breathe easier – knowing we've got a cutting-edge environmental reporting system recording emissions and plant operations data around the clock." "A plant today really has a lot of liability if it's trying to manage its environmental program from spreadsheets, antiquated systems and visual inspections," said Darnell. "With hundreds, even thousands of pages of data to sift through, a member of a plant's environmental team could easily miss important emissions information during a manual review. ERS eliminates the element of human error by recording continuous data from all sources and offering it up in easy to read report formats."

"I can't imagine going back to a manual system that requires a staff of several employees to review emissions history and trends printouts in an effort to determine if the mill is in compliance or not," said Kirkland. "You can work as diligently as humanly possible to collect comprehensive emissions data and still miss some key information. It's a risk we're not willing to take at Smurfit-Stone."

Still, according to Kirkland, environmental teams in pulp and paper, petrochemical, and other industries continue to track emissions the hard way. He has a suggestion for them.

"Focus on your general manager signing that certification document. How confident are you and your boss with the accuracy of that report," asks Kirkland. "Can you sleep at night – wondering if someone on the team inadvertently left critical information out of a report? ERS has greatly improved the overall environmental performance of the Brewton Mill."

As a result Jack Kirkland is breathing easier in Brewton, Alabama – confident his days as an emissions data investigator are behind him for good.