In this April 2020 file photo, a truck loaded with wood chips comes around a corner in Livermore Falls. The same day, a digester exploded at the Androscoggin Mill in the neighboring town of Jay. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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The Tuesday announcement that the Jay paper mill would close in January and lay off 230 workers evoked the many closures that have hammered Maine’s paper industry over the past decade. This one is not like the others, but it remains a major blow on many levels.

Both Jay and Livermore Falls were early centers of papermaking and the birthplace of International Paper, which built the Androscoggin Mills in 1965. At its peak, it employed 1,500 people. It was the scene of a bitter 1987 strike against International Paper, which sold it in 2006. Hundreds of layoffs came in the ensuing decade and Pennsylvania-based Pixelle Specialty Solutions bought it just two months before a catastrophic digester explosion in April 2020.

Nobody was injured in the blast, but a workforce that sat just under 500 then has shrunk as the mill pivoted and scaled back operations, idling one paper machine and declining to rebuild the damaged pulp mill. At the time, the mill’s pulp component made it an outsized part of Maine’s forest products industry, buying wood chips from sawmills and loggers.

Political reaction was swift. Gov. Janet Mills, who lives in nearby Farmington, said Pixelle’s CEO told her the state could do nothing to prevent the closure. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King along with Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District praised workers for keeping the mill going “despite enormous obstacles and strong headwinds.” Former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, the Republican opposing Golden, called the closure “preventable.”

But one industry expert distinguished this one from the others on that front. If the explosion had not happened, the mill would likely be operating profitably, said Eric Kingsley, a partner at Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC, a forest products consulting firm. Energy prices that were low at the time of the explosion have risen sharply, he noted, likely making operations harder.

“Knowing that those things are cyclical, I think most observers expected that at some point that would no longer be a viable, standalone paper mill,” he said.

The mill exited the regional wood market two years ago, limiting effects on the wider Maine forest products industry, Kingsley said. But he noted the cultural effect on the Jay and the region. Major property tax implications are coming for the town and county as well, with a long-dominant payer exiting.

“We’re saddened to hear about the proposed closing of the mill in Jay,” state Sen. Russell Black, R-Wilton, said in a statement. “[It] has been a vital part of our wood products economy and has been operating in Maine for over half a century.”

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...