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Rising to the COVID-19 challenge at UPM Paso de los Toros project

Building a greenfield pulp mill is a mammoth undertaking at the best of times – but doing so during a global pandemic is a next-level pressure test. UPM is pulling off the seemingly impossible at its new Paso de los Toros pulp mill site in central Uruguay and the other related construction sites.

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis continues to be felt by businesses all around the world. The global health emergency has impaired mobility, eroded profits and forced businesses to rethink their practices for a new reality.

When UPM made the decision to build the Paso de los Toros mill site in Durazno in the summer of 2019, the prospect of a deadly virus raging around the world seemed as remote as a dystopian fantasy. But, just as civil works were getting underway last year, COVID-19 hit.

Yet today, roughly one year later, the project is proceeding right on schedule. UPM expects to open the mill as originally planned in the second half of 2022.

In view of the ongoing health crisis and the project’s massive scale, this achievement bears witness to an exemplary dedication to efficiency and safety management.

The investment – USD 3 billion in total – is the most ambitious in the company’s history. In addition to the pulp mill, which will grow UPM’s current pulp capacity by more than 50%, the project also comprises a pulp terminal in the port of Montevideo and investments in local facilities in Paso de los Toros.

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As well as the new mill, UPM is building a new port terminal in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital. Photo: UPM

Proceeding to plan

There are currently over 3,000 people working on the project at 16 construction sites. At the main mill site, mechanical construction kicked off as planned in January 2021. Civil engineering is progressing on schedule in all main process areas: wood handling, the recovery island, the fibre line, drying and bale unloading.

Construction of housing is nearing completion, with over 90% of work completed. The new housing is already occupied by construction workers.

At the Montevideo pulp terminal, work is ongoing on the main pier and tank area, and construction of the pulp warehouse and unloading area is in full swing.

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Transfers of machinery, equipment and other structures for the new mill will continue until the end of the year. Photo: UPM

Synergies with Fray Bentos

The project owes its smooth progress to UPM’s established presence in Uruguay. Paso de los Toros is the group’s second pulp mill in the country. The first, UPM Fray Bentos, has been operational since 2007, offering synergies such as expertise-sharing and an existing pool of skilled employees.

With road infrastructure improvements recently completed between the two mills, UPM has initiated convoys of heavy cargo from Fray Bentos port to the Durazno mill site. Transfers of machinery, equipment and other structures for the new mill will continue until the end of the year.

“The planning is done in coordination with the national environmental and road authorities as well as the municipalities to design the safest strategy to move these pieces, reducing potential impacts on traffic,” says Javier Solari, Vice President of Project Development at UPM in Uruguay.

Part of this progress was the inauguration of the bypass near Young city in Río Negro, which UPM has funded. This bypass stops heavy traffic from entering the city and connects the important routes to the south, further boosting development in the area.

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The new mill will be opened during the second half of 2022. Photo: UPM

Strict safety protocols

Diligent compliance with safety guidelines issued by the Ministry of Public Health of Uruguay has enabled work to continue without interruption. The workers have adjusted well to the unique circumstances of the health crisis.

Strict protocols have been enforced since the beginning of the pandemic, including a system to reduce contact between workers, effective tracing, body temperature measurements at all access points, 50% usage of bus capacity, frequent disinfection of vehicles and facilities, lunch in shifts, and air conditioning ionizers that eliminate 99% of bacteria and viruses.

Workers have been given 500 random monthly tests, with around 4,000 swabs carried out in total since the start of the pandemic.

Sanitary precautions have been further stepped up since the holidays at the turn of the year. All workers returning to the mill site were swabbed on arrival, and UPM has doubled its testing capacity using a Finnish automatic testing system. About 200 random swabs are being carried out daily and all new workers must present a negative COVID-19 test result before arriving at Paso de los Toros.

The implementation of strict health and sanitary protocols will continue to be critical in the coming months, as, just like many other countries, the number of COVID-19 infections is currently increasing in Uruguay.

 

Text: Silja Kudel