PORT ANGELES – The McKinley Mill in Port Angeles is not quite ready to go full-steam ahead, but new recruits are busy learning from seasoned veterans how to make their first giant rolls of paper from 100% recycled materials.

Pepper Fisher put on a hard hat and ear plugs and joined Health and Safety Officer Grant Rider for an eye-opening tour of the facility Wednesday morning.

The mill has been operating on a practice-and-warmup basis for about a week. The cogeneration plant is turning what would otherwise be waste wood, including branches, stumps and bark, into fuel to create steam that powers the rest of the mill.

Smoke from the process is almost non-existent, and because the products they produce are made from recycled paper and not wood chips, the notorious odor that many Washingtonians have come to expect from a paper mill is a thing of the past.

The process begins by turning the recycled paper, some of it purchased from the neighboring Port Townsend Paper mill, into an oatmeal-like mash. That mash is fed into one end of an enormous, vintage, retooled paper-making machine at least 100 feet long. It presses, stretches and steam dries the mash until, and at the other end, they’ve produced a roll of brown paper some 16-feet wide and 6-feet tall.

The paper will later be used primarily for shopping bags, but another machine is being prepared to make cardboard products.

The factory is hot, noisy, and the employees told us they love their jobs and are happy to be working. Rider says the camaraderie and teamwork they’re developing will be at least as important as their training for creating a good product.

They’d been running trial rolls for 5 days as of Wednesday, fine-tuning the machines and getting the new hires up to speed. And although the giant rolls were not yet up to company standards, it all gets turned back into mash for another try.

Company officials say they’re still not ready to announce an official opening date but, based on what we saw, things at the mill are progressing nicely.