MILLINOCKET — Layoffs at the Katahdin Avenue paper mill will start by week’s end with small numbers of workers as mill cleanup and mothballing operations continue, a mill spokesman said Monday.
“There will be a little bit here and there but not in large numbers or all at once,” Glenn Saucier, the mill’s Personnel Department director and spokesman, said Monday of the layoff process. “It could be several weeks before everything gets done because we still have a lot of work to do on the maintenance side as we prepare the mill for the winter.
“It could be very gradual,” Saucier added.
As many as 208 workers at the Katahdin Paper Co. LLC mill could be laid off as the facility goes into an indefinite shutdown as part of the company’s plans to convert the mill from oil-burning to biomass — and possibly reopen if the talks are fruitful.
Mill managers and parent company, Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management, are negotiating with an un-named third party to retrofit the mill’s No. 4 boiler with a gasifier system that would burn biomass — typically bark or other tree debris.
Those talks continue, but there was nothing new to report as of Monday, Saucier and David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said.
Brookfield announced on May 29 that the mill’s prodigious oil use would force an indefinite shutdown in 60 days and layoff of 208 workers if an alternative energy source weren’t found. Gov. John Baldacci intervened, the mill found energy savings and supportive customers, and the deadline was extended repeatedly.
Brookfield was in talks with alternative energy providers on Aug. 26 when its officials ordered the Sept. 2 shutdown in a manner that Baldacci and the unions said was abrupt. The mill ceased production on Sept. 2, when cleanup operations began.
The exact number of layoffs is unclear because of bumping, a union practice that allows Millinocket workers with seniority to claim jobs at Katahdin Paper’s East Millinocket mill. Also, the company and unions have yet to begin effects negotiations or to complete management restructuring plans, Saucier said.
“I can’t tell you the numbers yet because we keep working through them,” Saucier said.
Union officials and Baldacci said they believe the mill could reopen in six to nine months with a retrofitted biomass boiler if talks go well. One union president said he thought it likely that the energy talks would culminate by October.
The unions and Baldacci have said they want talks to culminate before considering other options, such as using eminent domain to seize control of the mill’s electricity-generating capacity.
Town Councilor Scott Gonya has said he would be interested only in using eminent domain to take public control of the mill’s 32-megawatt generating station and Stone Dam, which is located on mill property.
United Steel Workers union representative Duane Lugdon said eminent domain, which he helped pursue unsuccessfully against a Passadumkeag sawmill owner in 2001, is practicable, but unlikely to succeed.
Still, he said he would support eminent domain use if the biomass talks fail.