BUCKSPORT, Maine — Reality is setting in this week for workers at the Verso paper mill, according to union and company officials at the mill.
The mill already has shut down two papermaking machines this week and is shutting down the third and final machine either Thursday or Friday. Bill Cohen, spokesman for Verso, said the third machine was expected to be shut down around midnight. Whether it is Thursday or Friday depends on what side of the hour it is when the last quantity of paper rolls off the machine, Cohen said.
Verso announced in October that it planned to close the mill for good by the end of the year, putting hundreds of employees out of work.
Emery Deabay, president of United Steel Workers Local 1188 and a power plant operator at the mill, said Thursday morning that the mood at the mill has become more somber as the machines have been taken offline. He said he has been an employee at the mill for 40 years.
“It’s been emotional all week,” Deabay said, standing on a sidewalk directly across River Road from the mill’s main entrance. “A few people have teared up. I think the denial stage is over.”
What may happen to the mill property after it shuts down is unknown, Cohen said. Verso officials have said they are considering options, which include possibly selling the papermaking facility. The natural gas-powered electrical generation plant at the site, which Verso purchased in February, will continue to operate after the mill closes, they have said.
Verso officials have said they expect to keep between 50 and 60 workers beyond the end of December to keep the power plant operating.
Cohen said the significance of shutting the machines down this week is not lost on the mill’s managers. He said members of the media were not allowed into the facility so that workers can concentrate on shutdown procedures and avoid possible accidents.
“At this point our focus is on getting it mothballed and buttoned up,” Cohen said of the mill. “[Two of the three papermaking machines] are down. It’s quiet in there.”
Mill employees have handled this week’s demands well, he said, working “proudly” and safely, despite the unfamiliar process of moving around large pieces of equipment that usually stay put. No equipment is being removed from the mill, he added. It is being moved around as part of the cleaning and mothballing process.
Deabay said he has not heard whether the mill may have a life beyond the end of the year. He said he hoped there would be a more active interest expressed by now to keep the facility going.
“I’m a little less optimistic now than I was a month ago, now that they are shutting machines down,” Deabay said. “I’d just [prefer] another paper company buy the whole thing.”
He said a few millworkers already have taken jobs elsewhere, but that Verso has agreed to pay severance packages to everyone, whether or not they stay through the end of the month.
But he added that when Verso might provide employees with their severance is a point of contention. The company has indicated it may take a month or more into 2015 to distribute the money, but Deabay said state law requires the severance be provided to workers within two weeks of being laid off.
“I think it’s going to end up in litigation,” Deabay said. “January and February aren’t easy months to be living in Maine without any money.”
According to Cohen, the company’s contract with the five unions at the Bucksport mill stipulates that all severance be paid within 90 days of separation. Verso intends to comply with that contractual deadline, he said.
While closing the Bucksport mill, Verso continues its efforts to acquire NewPage, which owns a mill in Rumford. NewPage announced at the end of October that it had agreed to sell its Rumford mill and another in Wisconsin to satisfy antitrust concerns about the merger.
The planned closure of the Bucksport mill is the latest development to send waves through Maine’s declining pulp and paper manufacturing industry.
Old Town Fuel & Fiber closed its pulp mill in mid-August and laid off about 180 workers. Patriarch Partners, which pur chased the former Georgia-Pacific mill in Old Town out of bankruptcy for $19 million in 2008, is looking to sell the facility.
On Tuesday, Hackman Capital Partners successfully bid $5.4 million for the shuttered Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket. That mill laid off 212 workers, out of a total of 256, in February and then in September filed for bankruptcy.
The Bucksport mill’s origins date to 1930, when it opened as the Maine Seaboard Paper Co. and produced newsprint, mill officials have said. Time Inc. purchased the mill in 1946 and hired the St. Regis company to operate it for them, producing the coated paper for which the Bucksport mill became known.
St. Regis purchased the mill in 1947 and over the next 3½ decades periodically expanded and improved the mill to keep up with modern technology. Champion International purchased the mill in 1984, and IP bought Champion, including its mills in Bucksport and Jay, in 2000. IP sold the Maine mills to Verso in 2006.
The mill employed approximately 1,000 people in 2000, but its workforce has since shrunk to roughly 800 employees in 2005 and currently to around 570.