BUCKSPORT, Maine — The No. 1 machine at the Verso Paper mill has met federal standards for producing a new line of paper that can be used for packaging in the food industry.
The mill reported in October that it planned to convert the No. 1 machine, the oldest in the plant, to produce a new line of specialty paper.
“Because some of our potential customers are involved with packaging — primarily around food, but other packaging as well — we had to meet certain FDA standards,” Verso spokesman Bill Cohen said Friday.
The federal Food and Drug Administration does not inspect plants generally unless there is a problem, Cohen said, so the mill hired a third-party consultant to inspect the mill and certify that it meets the federal standards.
“There were certain kinds of things we needed to change or do to meet the [FDA] regs,” he said. “The consultant certified that if we continued to operate in this way we would continue to meet the FDA requirements.”
The changes were not major, according to Cohen, and mainly involved modifications to operations to ensure a hygienic area for the new paper, including adjusting screens to make sure nothing can fall onto the paper sheet. In addition, operators no longer will be allowed to wear shorts while working on the machine and they will be required to wear hats or hairnets on the job.
“Those were the kinds of things we needed to do,” Cohen said.
The machine was producing paper on Friday as part of the trial production runs for potential customers.
“We’d love to turn them into accounts,” Cohen said.
Reluctant to discuss market details, Cohen declined to name the potential customers or say how much of the specialty paper they would buy. He would not confirm previous reports that the customer packages a sugar substitute in small, single-serving packages.
Likewise, Cohen said he could not discuss how much specialty paper Verso expects to produce on the machine.
“We’d like to see that machine running all the time,” he said.
The company previously notified the market that it planned to remove the 80,000 tons of coated paper the machine produced each year from the market. He would not say whether the specialty paper production would match that tonnage.
“After 61 years producing coated paper, we’re learning a new business,” he said. “We’ve got great papermakers at the mill. They’re learning the ways of the machine and how to work with it.”
If Verso hadn’t made the move to convert the machine to specialty paper, Cohen said, it would have been shut down. That would have resulted in layoffs at the mill.
Before the conversion of the No. 1 machine, the mill had the capability of producing more than 1,400 tons a day of lightweight coated groundwood papers for offset and rotogravure printing, according to the Verso Paper Web site. The Bucksport mill employs 795 people operating four paper machines.
The coated paper market is sluggish now and the mill has taken some down time. The No. 2 machine is down until the end of the year and mill officials have notified workers that the No. 4 machine will be idle for two weeks before the end of the year.
Although the coated market is soft, Cohen would not speculate on whether Verso would convert other machines at the mill for specialty papers.
“There’s always the technical opportunity to convert those machines to something else,” he said. “Whether we would do that, I don’t know.”
There are other opportunities for the No. 1 machine, however. Just as the mill produces different grades of coated paper, Cohen said, there is the potential to develop different grades of specialty papers for different uses.
The machine is running trials with the potential customer, but Cohen gave no indication when it might begin regular production.