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Business and Economy

Bucksport Mill Closure Leaves Community in Shock

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The latest news for Maine's paper industry is not good. Tennessee-based Verso paper has announced that it will shut down one of its two paper mills in Maine. Company officials broke the news Wednesday to workers and the town that this will be the last year that its Bucksport plant will produce paper. Despite chronic troubles within the industry, the news still came as a surprise to many.

 

Employees at the Verso paper mill in Bucksport have essentially been given two months notice. Starting in December, the company will cease making paper, and then the layoffs will begin.

"You could tell things weren't the best, but you just kept coming to work," said one worker. The worker, who did not wish to share his name, says he's held his job at the mill through good times and tough ones for 27 years. He says finding out that in just a few short weeks he'd join the ranks of the jobless still came as a big shock.

While the Maine Department of Labor is dispatching a Rapid Response team to advise workers of their options - from unemployment to job placement - he says entering a new career probably isn't in the cards for him.  "What do 60-year-old people do? You know? You take one day at a time. You keep pressing on. That's it."

For mill officials with Verso, the problem is a simple one: The Bucksport mill is not profitable, says Lyle Fellows, senior vice president for manufacturing and energy. The company's sister facility, the Androscoggin mill in Jay, is not affected by the layoffs.

"Jay is a profitable facility, and Bucksport's been an unprofitable facility for several years," Fellows says, "and part of that is just, infrastructurally, how they're constructed and built, and those kind of things."

For example, the Jay mill produces plenty of pulp, says Fellows, and can offset its energy costs by using some of the by-products as fuel. Bucksport isn't set up that way he says. And the mill is making coated paper - that's the glossy stuff you find in catalogs and magazines. In this digital age, says Fellows, there's just less call for what mills like Bucksport have to offer.

Speculation that a proposed merger between Verso and NewPage Corporation might have played a role in the company's decision to shut down Bucksport was swiftly shot down. "it's absolutely independent of the merger," Fellows says. "It has nothing to do with the merger whatsoever."

But whatever the reason, Bucksport town officials, like Dave Milan, say they were caught off guard. "Right now, my gut's just ripped out," Milan says. "That's what I feel like right now. To me this is akin to a death in the family."

As economic development director for the town, Milan says he was blindsided, in part because the mill was actively partnering with the town on an Eastern Maine Community College Program, designed to train the next generation of paper workers at the facility. "We just met with them recently about the start of the program for this fall and we were led to believe everything was fine."

Eight students have already signed up for the program, says Milan. In all, about 570 workers will lose their jobs in this town of just about 5,000. Taxes from the mill account for about 44 percent of the town’s budget.

The town's new manager, Derik Goodine, who has only been on the job for three months, says a closure of this magnitude is something he's never had to deal with before.

Verso officials say they intend to keep operating an adjacent 270-megawatt power station valued at $41 million - which town officials hope will slightly soften the blow to Bucksport's tax base. But they say it is the end of the road for the $317 million paper mill, which will cease making paper on Dec. 1.