Workers still scared

By Diana Graettinger,
Posted March 09, 2009, at 9:19 p.m.

BAILEYVILLE, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci visited here Monday to talk about what the state can do to ease the impact of the closing of the Domtar Corp. pulp mill.

Domtar announced last week that it will idle the pulp mill for an indefinite period, affecting more than 300 employees beginning May 5.

Baldacci arrived in Baileyville around 8:30 a.m. Monday and met first with senior staff and then union leaders. He then talked with production workers in the mill, and afterward spoke in the main office with city and town officials from Eastport, Calais and Baileyville, as well as state and federal representatives.

“It was fairly informative,” said Jeff O’Neill, president of the mill’s IBEW Local 1057, after Baldacci’s meeting with union leaders. “He seems to see some light at the end of the tunnel. No one is talking about a permanent shutdown, neither Domtar nor the governor — basically [the mill is] idled, and that is what they are standing by.”

Baldacci told the town and city officials that the state stood ready to tackle the problem.

“It is a huge impact,” he said. “I know that it is devastating.”

Baldacci indicated that Washington County had other economic potentials, including the possibility of becoming an energy corridor for the state through liquefied natural gas and wind power projects, but gave no details about action the state might take with regard to the mill.

Workers are scared, said Domtar boiler operator Andre Melanson while expressing hope that the mill would reopen.

“It’s doom and gloom,” said Philip Polk, vice president of United Steelworkers Local 27, talking about the mood inside the mill. “[The governor] is going to try and help us out and see what he can do; even if it is shut down he is going to help make sure that we can get back up and running. Of course, there is no guarantee.”

But regardless of the bad news, employees are focused on getting the product out until the shutdown, according to Baileyville Town Councilor Derek Howard, who has worked for Domtar for the past 19 years. “Everybody is still in there, they are doing their job,” he said before the meeting with the governor. “They are doing it fine. It seems that there’s no bitterness in there that I can feel, just a somber atmosphere.”

Asked if he was worried that the indefinite closure might become permanent, Howard said that was not what he had heard from company officials.

The town knows about shutdowns.

In June 2007, the company announced it was shutting down its paper side of the mill for a period of time. Two months later, the company closed the paper operation permanently, throwing 150 people out of work.

That still left the pulp mill operating with 300 employees, but the possibility of a closure is why those workers are worried now.

The Montreal-based Domtar Corp. said it was idling the pulp mill because of the poor global economy. The mill has an annual hardwood pulp production capacity of 398,000 metric tons.

The layoff to begin May 5 will affect all employees.

Eastport City Manager George “Bud” Finch on Monday compared Domtar’s announcement last week to a major earthquake with the epicenter in Baileyville and the tremors reaching across Washington County.

Eastport is bracing for the worst of those tremors. Domtar is Eastport’s largest shipping customer, sending most of its pulp overseas to foreign markets.

“If Domtar closes,” Finch said, “then the county working as a whole will have to look for other options.”

In neighboring Calais, merchants are worried because Domtar workers spend money there. Calais is the service center for the area.

“About 50 percent of the millworkers live in Calais and do business in Calais and without an income they are not going to do business,” Calais City Manager Diane Barnes said before the morning meeting. “And the most important part, too, is: Are [the workers] going to stay in Calais or are they going to relocate to some other region that has jobs because there really is nothing else here in Washington County?”

Baileyville interim Town Manager Dottie Johnson told Baldacci she grew up believing that if you worked hard everything would come out all right.

“No one works harder than people here,” she said of the millworkers. “So working harder is not the answer.” She urged the governor to help the workers first and then the town.

Baldacci indicated there were other options for the area, including LNG plants that he said would benefit the area. Three companies have proposed LNG facilities for eastern Washington County.

“I support LNG,” the governor said. “I don’t want to put our eggs in these baskets long term, because I still don’t like importing energy. But I think we are going to need to recognize the fact of life that we are going to need to get a bridge from here to there, and that is going to be a part of it.”

The governor also said that windmill power was another opportunity for Washington County and said he would support legislation, introduced by Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, to expand the benefits of a tax increment financing package for wind power in the Unorganized Territory to benefit all of Washington County.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/03/09/news/workers-still-scared/ printed on December 26, 2014