It smells, but the air that carried smoke and debris from the Androscoggin Mill explosion on Wednesday is safe to breathe, Jay Fire and Rescue Chief Mike Booker said Thursday.
Town workers will soon start collecting pulp debris scattered by the explosion, which 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. Chemically treated pulp fell from the sky as far as a mile away from the mill.
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. With 500 workers it is 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.
“The air quality is safe. There is a nuisance smell, but that is not toxic to your health,” Jay said in a statement posted on the fire department’s Facebook page. “The chemical with the pulp is classified as a mild irritant, will dissolve over time, and is known as a good fertilizer.”
Booker discussed the situation with Maine Department of Environmental Protection and mill officials prior to releasing the statement.
The swept-up pulp debris will be dumped at the mill landfill. Town workers will target Route 140 and Route 4, among other areas. Residents who clean up the debris should wear gloves, and if dust is present, a face mask, Booker said. He advised residents to contact Roxie Lassetter, human resources manager for Pennsylvania-based Pixelle Specialty Solutions, which owns the mill, at 207-897-1307 to arrange for mill workers to collect the debris for disposal.
Booker asked residents to be patient as mill and town officials determine whether the mill can restart. 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.”
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.