More than two years after a massive explosion at a paper mill in Jay, Maine, hundreds of workers will soon be out of a job.
In April 2020, the "digester" of the Androscoggin Mill in the town of fewer than 5,000 people, a roughly 45-minute drive north of Lewiston, exploded, sending debris over a widespread area.
Fortunately, there were no injuries following the blast but the incident did irreparable harm to operations at the mill, forcing operators to bring in pulp from other places.
With help from the State of Maine, the mill continued to operate but on Tuesday evening, a company called Pixelle, which owns the mill, announced it would close within the first few months of 2023.
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Shiloh LaFreniere, who is the town manager in Jay, told NECN &BC 10 Boston on Wednesday that she was "absolutely surprised" and the move was "like a kick in the gut."
“The mill right now is about 22% of our tax base,” she said, explaining that in the past year it had generated about $1.8 million for Jay.
However, Shiloh noted that the amount of money the mill generated has steadily shrunk over time, as the facility itself scaled back.
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"We just had a feeling it might happen but I didn’t think it’d be this soon," said Randy Richards, a former mill worker who lives in Jay.
"I feel bad for the people I used to work with that’s a real good paying job with good benefits," he added.
The move is expected to impact 230 jobs.
A spokesperson for Pixelle declined a request for an interview with NECN/NBC 10 Boston on Wednesday.
He instead referenced a press release which cites "economic forces beyond our control" combining to "make profitable operations at the mill unsustainable."
The release goes on to say:
"We are grateful for the efforts of the employees and are committed to assisting them with offers of continued employment at other Pixelle locations or outplacement support. The mill has endured significant business and financial challenges that were compounded by the April 2020 rupture of one of its pulp digesters and catastrophic damage impacting the continued operability of the entire pulp mill. No one was injured in the event, and the mill subsequently transitioned into higher margin specialty products and invested capital to increase operational efficiencies while operating on purchased pulp. The company intends to work with its customers where possible to transition their products to other Pixelle mills or to plan for volumes of orders in the limited production leading up to mill closure."
In a written statement on Tuesday, Maine Gov. Janet Mills said she was "deeply disappointed," by the closure announcement, adding that she had asked Pixelle if there was anything the State of Maine could do to keep the mill open but the company told her nothing could be done
"More importantly, I am deeply concerned for the livelihoods and wellbeing of those who work at the mill. I was glad to hear that Pixelle will offer all employees health care benefits and severance pay following the end of their employment in 2023, but I am also directing Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman to send a Rapid Response Team to help support the mill workers and provide all available resources to them and their families," Mills added.
Town officials in Jay said they expected to meet with Maine state officials on Thursday to discuss next steps.