Uncertainty marks Domtar startup

Posted June 24, 2009, at 9:45 p.m.

BAILEYVILLE, Maine — The rumble of machinery was coming from the pulp mill early Wednesday morning as boiler stacks billowed and workers, some smiling, headed into the plant after a layoff of more than eight weeks.

Montreal-based Domtar Corp. has reopened for business in this Washington County town, and pulp is expected to start rolling off the line in the next few days.

Some work crews were back in the mill two weeks ago in preparation for the startup. Some returned last week, others on Monday.

In March the company announced it would idle the mill for an indefinite period, affecting more than 300 employees, who were laid off May 5. The shutdown was blamed on weak global pulp demand, historically high inventory levels and depressed prices.

The mill, which has an annual hardwood pulp production capacity of 398,000 air dry metric tons, is Washington County’s largest employer. The shutdown came as a major blow to the local economy, and communities had been bracing for a difficult future.

Then Domtar announced on June 10 that it was reopening the mill because of stronger global demand, tax credits for its use of alternative fuel mixtures, favorable currency exchange rates and improving prices.

Many workers entering or leaving the mill early Wednesday morning said they were “very” happy to be back on the job.

“We are putting her back together,” Andri Melanson, president of Local 3 Chapter 330 of the firemen and oilers union, said of the startup. Melanson, who lives in Eastport, had just completed the night shift.

After he was laid off, Melanson said, he considered attending The Boat School-Husson University in Eastport, but now that is on hold. “I have to pay the bills,” he said of his decision to return to work.

Another employee, Shawn Hall of Baileyville, had decided to return to school to train to be a nurse. “I was completely set on moving on with my life,” he said. “But I had to come back. [The job] is too hard to walk away from.”

But while they were happy to be back at work, most of the employees didn’t have a sense of how long production will last. Some speculated it could be anywhere from a few months to more than a year.

“I have heard absolutely nothing from the company on anything,” Melanson said of how long the mill might operate. “It’s about par for the course for these guys. They’re pretty tight-lipped.”

Philip Polk, vice president of the United Steelworkers Local 27, confirmed that employees were relieved to be back to work, but added, “We don’t know what the future will hold and we’re hoping it will do the best for us.”

Some employees found work elsewhere during their brief hiatus from the mill.

“I wasn’t out of work. I went to work in another job,” said Michael Smith of Alexander. “I left here and I really had a hard time deciding whether to come back because I just don’t feel it is going to last.”

Smith is keeping his options open. “So I kept my other job part time and I’ll work my days off and if [Domtar] goes down, I’ll still have my foot in the door,” he said of the other job.

Hall said he, too, would like to know how long they would be working. “They tend to keep us in the dark, and I wish they’d let out a little more information,” he said. “We don’t know whether it will be a week, a month or year or what.”

Most workers are taking it one day at a time. Right now, Melanson said, employees are “saving a little money and hoping for the best.”

Not even Domtar officials seem to know how long this work period will last.

Company spokesman Scott Beal said it depends on market conditions. “As long as they hold or continue to strengthen then we’ve got an opportunity to be cash positive and a viable part of the corporation going forward. I wouldn’t put a time limit in terms of what the life expectancy of what the operational status would be — I don’t think there is any way to do that,” he said.

Just weeks ago, a visit to Beal’s third-floor office was like walking through a tomb. Lights were out on most of the floors at the company’s administration building in Baileyville. Computers and machines were quiet, cubicles were empty.

On Wednesday, lights and computers were on and quiet conversation came from behind gray cubicles.

Beal said company officials appreciated the fact that the majority of employees returned to work. “That is critical for that experience and institutional knowledge that there just is no substitute for it,” he said. “So we have been very fortunate. I think a lot of that is directly tied to the brevity of the outage.

If this had been protracted and extended it may have very well been a different story because people have to do what they’ve got to do to take care of themselves and their families, and we understand that.”

Although some who were heading back to work Wednesday said they would have liked to have the summer off to fish or work on projects around the house, many expressed hope that the whole community would help keep the mill operating.

“We need all the support that we can get from the workers, the community and the press,” Mason Pottle of Baileyville said.

The startup is seen as a return to economic stability for the area, local officials and business owners said after the announcement of the startup earlier this month, and other local companies will benefit.

Fulghum Fibres Inc., which supplies the majority of wood chips to the mill, along with longshoremen and others who load pulp at the Eastport port onto ships bound for overseas markets are in the process or already have returned to work.

Interim Baileyville Town Manager Dottie Johnson said Wednesday that positive energy is coursing through the town.

“Everyone is very happy,” she said. “Really it is a godsend and some kind of a miracle.”

Johnson said that although the town would like to broaden its economic base by bringing new businesses into the town, Domtar still was No. 1.

“Domtar is the golden goose and we want it to continue,” she said.

bdncalais@myfairpoint.net

454-8228

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