Grim-faced workers leave silent mill

Posted May 05, 2009, at 8:51 p.m.

BAILEYVILLE, Maine — The pulp mill on Tuesday looked as if it had just expired. Its stacks threw no smoke, its machines that turned wood chips into pulp were silent.

Tuesday was the last day for most of the employees at the Domtar Corp. pulp mill. The Montreal-based company announced in March that it would idle the mill for an indefinite period, affecting more than 300 employees.

There have been collateral losses with the announced shutdown of the mill. On Friday, the last Pan Am Railway train that carried chemicals to the mill left town for the last time.

The port at Estes Head in Eastport will send out its final shipment of pulp to overseas markets in the next few weeks. Port director Chris Gardner said Tuesday that it was his job to find new business for the port.

“We will just try to grow the port in different areas and hope that Domtar’s return will be soon,” he said.

Wood harvesters and chip suppliers are out of work. Jason’s New York Style Pizza, located just a few feet from the mill gate, is closing its doors. Jason Fell said Tuesday that he was moving his operation to Old Town and selling the building.

Fell said there is no longer enough business in town to keep him there.

“It is going to be hard for everybody, but I am sure they will work their way through it all,” he said of the workers who had just lost their jobs.

About 15 of them were seated around a large table in the restaurant, drinking beer and talking. There was some laughter and forced bravado, but mostly somber faces

“Everyone is very sad to have the town so quiet,” interim Town Manager Dottie Johnson said Tuesday. 

“The workers are facing their last paycheck,” she said. “They are worried about insurance. They are worried about their mortgages. They’re worried about all the bills that they have.” 

The interim town manager said some of the salaried workers would remain on the job, but she did not know for how long. Asked whether keeping staff on the job suggested the mill might reopen, Johnson wasn’t sure.

“I think if the people involved were optimistic they would have a different look on their face, and they are all very serious and very sad,” she said.

Just outside the mill gate, employee faces were grim. Some wanted to talk about the final day in the mill, while others politely declined. There were few cars in the parking lot even though the shift was scheduled to end at 3 p.m. Most of the workers had trickled out throughout the day.

Security guards checked the backs of trucks making sure the only items leaving were the employees’ tools and personal belongings. One man walked past the guard shack holding a coffee cup.

He turned it upside down to show the guards that he wasn’t even taking coffee out of the mill. General Manager Tim Lowe stood outside the guard shack shaking hands with the men and women as they left. He had no comment for the press.

Company spokesman Scott Beal also had no comment. “I don’t have any statements,” he said. One man who did not identify himself called the shutdown “surreal.” “Kind of like walking in a dream, like not real,” he said.

“I guess everybody is hoping they’ll be back,” said Gene Newcomb of Perry, who said he’d worked for the mill for nearly 20 years.

Francis Benson, whose job is to operate the mill’s dams, said he and another employee would keep their jobs.

“We have seven dams we have to control,” he said. Jannell Smith, who went to work for the mill in 1977, said she and her husband are in their 60s and luckier than most employees.

“I feel sorry for the younger people in here,” she said. Seth Hayman a 42-year veteran of the mill said he had spoken with the general manager. “I just talked to Timmy Lowe on the way out and he said he’d do whatever he could and he is going to work hard to get everybody back,” he said.

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