JAY, Maine — Any long-term shutdown of the Androscoggin Mill after a massive Wednesday explosion would have a long-lasting ripple effect on Maine’s forest economy at a time when the coronavirus outbreak is upsetting wood markets, observers said.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Roxie Lassetter, human resources manager for Pennsylvania-based Pixelle Specialty Solutions, which owns the mill, said the company may not know until morning whether the mill could operate partially after the blast. It occurred in a digester that turns softwood into pulp to make specialty paper. A significant part of the building was destroyed, but no injuries were reported.
The Androscoggin Mill is a key cog in Maine’s long-embattled paper industry, which saw five mills close between 2014 and 2016 but has leveled off since then in a stronger economy. It has 500 workers as Franklin County’s second-largest employer and makes up roughly half of Jay’s property tax base at a valuation of more than $325 million.
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The pulp component makes it an outsized part of Maine’s forest products industry. It buys wood chips from sawmills and loggers, giving them an important outlet for a byproduct that could otherwise be burned or landfilled. At the same time, the virus has caused a slowdown in home construction that has led top lumber futures to drop, according to MarketWatch.
Eric Kingsley, a partner at Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, a natural resources consulting group, said any extended closure in Jay would “affect all parts of the supply chain” from millworkers to loggers and “has the possibility of shutting down some sawmills.”
The domino effect was clear in a 2019 study for the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine that found every two jobs in a sawmill or pulp mill supports one logging job, as does every four jobs in paper manufacturing. Expansions since 2018 created 340 new mill jobs in Maine by then and that was before an Old Town mill reopened last August.
“It’s like a spider web and when something like this happens, it’s going to affect everybody in the state whether they know it or not at the worst time you could come up with,” said Jim Robbins, the president of Robbins Lumber, Inc., in Searsmont.
Robbins said his family-owned company sends half of the wood chips from its sawmill to the Jay mill while burning the other half in a biomass plant that opened in 2017. He said his diversified business will burn all of its chips and take some to help competitors, but it will “affect all the wood markets” in the state.
Kevin Hynes, chief operating officer of Hancock Lumber’s sawmill division in Casco, said any extended closure will make things “more challenging not only for sawmills but for loggers,” though the byproduct represents a relatively small portion of overall income for the company.
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Dana Doran, the executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, said it’s premature to gauge the effect of the blast, but it could be “devastating” for the industry. Loggers are not working heavily now because it is mud season, but operations are scheduled to pick up by late spring. Doran said many may not have an outlet for wood if the mill does not reopen.
The Jay mill was sold to Pixelle for $400 million by Verso Corp. this year. Verso laid off 300 people in 2015 and shut down a paper machine in 2017. But it restarted that machine and hired back 120 people the following year. The mill seemed to be on an even track before the blast.
“We don’t know yet what the future may bring for the Androscoggin Mill,” said Gov. Janet Mills, who lives in nearby Farmington, at a Wednesday news conference. “That will come more fully into view in the coming days.”
BDN writer Lori Valigra contributed to this report.
Watch: A Jay paper mill explodes