OLD TOWN, Maine — As recently as last fall, the prospects for the former Georgia-Pacific paper mill overlooking the Penobscot River looked dim.
The outlook, however, began to brighten a year ago, when the shuttered facility was purchased at auction for nearly $19 million by New York venture capitalist Lynn Tilton, founder and CEO of Patriarch Partners.
Tilton’s interest in the plant lay not in its ability to produce premium hardwood pulp but rather the possibility that it could become a pioneer in the production of energy and biofuels as byproducts of its core pulp manufacturing process.
The plant reopened in February as Old Town Fuel & Fiber. The company, which now employs nearly 190 workers, also is taking steps to become a green energy facility.
A major step to that end came last month, when the mill converted its lime kiln from No. 6 oil to natural gas, Dan Bird, the company’s human resources and information technology systems manager, said in an interview last week.
“There was a great economic benefit to doing that,” Bird acknowledged, but he said that an equally important impetus was that the switch lowered the plant’s carbon emissions by 27 percent.
“It’s the only place [in the plant] we still burn fossil fuel,” Bird said.
He said there are really “three stories” in the development of Old Town Fuel & Fiber.
“There’s our energy platform,” that is, the effort to become a fully “green” company, he said.
Then there’s the making of pulp, “that business that sustains us day to day. And there’s the biorefinery, which is our future endeavor,” Bird said.
“At any given moment of the day, we’re working on one of those three parts of the big puzzle,” he said.
Though the plant burns biofuel as part of its energy production process, as its predecessor Red Shield Environmental did, demolition debris no longer is part of the mix. The former owner’s use of demolition debris led to complaints and pollution concerns.
“We’re not burning that any longer,” Bird said. “We don’t have any short-term plans to do that. There’s been so much negativity around it, unfortunately, even though the real sad thing about that is where’s all that going today? The whole volume is going to the landfills instead of being reduced to ash and then putting that into a landfill.”
The former papermaking facility, which has been a part of the region’s economic mix since it opened in 1860, has seen a number of incarnations and owners over the decades, beginning as a sawmill and later serving as a pulp mill, paper mill and tissue mill over the decades, changing hands numerous times.
Its mission, however, began to shift in the late fall of 2006, when a group of investors calling themselves Red Shield Environmental was formed to restart the former paper mill, which Georgia-Pacific Corp. had closed in March of that year, putting 462 employees out of work.
Though that group hoped to reinvent the facility as a maker of pulp and biofuel, receiving a $30 million federal grant for the latter, RSE declared bankruptcy in June 2008, resulting in the layoff of about 160 employees.
Tilton is slated to be in Old Town today to mark Old Town Fuel & Fiber’s first anniversary. She, Gov. John Baldacci, plant employees and city officials will hold a press conference at 2 p.m. at the Earland Sleight Training Center, located across Main Street from the mill.