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A large explosion severely damaged the Androscoggin Mill in Jay on Wednesday morning, causing wood pulp to rain down on the surrounding area.
No employees or bystanders were harmed in the incident, which sent a large plume of smoke and debris into the sky that was visible for miles around.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle,” Androscoggin Mill spokeswoman Roxie Lassetter said Wednesday at a press briefing about the lack of resulting injuries.
There was no one near the site of the explosion, Lassetter said. Some people on site were experiencing respiratory issues after chemically treated pulp rained down on the surrounding area, but they were treated by local medical personnel and released, according to Joel Davis, a sergeant from the State Fire Marshal’s office.
A devastating explosion in nearby Farmington that killed one firefighter and injured seven others in September was fresh on the minds of many when today’s incident occurred.
“After [the explosion in] Farmington seven months ago, we were fearing the worst today. But by the grace of God it turned out much differently,” Davis said.
The explosion occurred when “there was an apparent rupture in a pressure vessel” inside the mill’s digester, which is where wood is broken down using water and a chemical to create pulp, Lassetter said. She said it is not immediately clear what caused the malfunction that led to the explosion.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection responded to the scene and is assessing the environmental impact.
Just before noon, plumes of dark gray smoke and pulp shot into the blue sky high above the mill, according to photos and video of the incident that eyewitnesses posted on Facebook. The smoke was visible across the Androscoggin River, which runs next to the mill.
Chemically treated pulp fell from the sky at least a mile away from the mill, much of it landing on the windshields of trucks that were parked outside of the mill waiting to deliver wood. After the explosion, firefighters sprayed water from a firetruck hose onto cars and trucks to wash away pulp that had covered many of them.
Investigators from the fire marshal’s office and several local fire departments responded to the scene. Fire crews were able to douse a small fire that had broken out on a part of the roof due to the explosion.
The fire marshal’s office will begin its investigation into the cause of the explosion tomorrow morning, according to Davis.
The blast occurred at 11:55 a.m., according to a statement from Pennsylvania-based Pixelle Specialty Solutions LLC, which owns the mill.
“The incident released a mixture of wood fiber, water and pulping liquor. At this point we are evaluating potential environmental impact,” Pixelle officials said in the statement.
The company is in the early stages of assessing the situation, and is working to restore order to the mill as soon as possible. It was not immediately clear Wednesday afternoon when the mill would be able to resume operation, Lassetter said.
The damage to the mill was significant, but the exact scope of the damage is not yet known. Davis said no damage has been reported outside of the mill site.
“First and foremost is our concern for the safety of our employees, contractors and visitors on our mill site. Everyone on site is accounted for and there are no injuries,” according to the statement.
On any given day shift, Lassetter said there are about 170 employees working at the mill, which has around 500 employees in total. However, no one works in the vicinity of the digester.
Local resident Rebecca Burhoe was driving home on Route 140 across from the mill when she heard the blast, which she said sounded like a bonfire taking off.
“Out of the corner of my eye I just saw this big huge plume of smoke,” Burhoe said.
Typically, the stacks from the mill are visible from where Burhoe was driving, but the cloud of smoke consumed the area and no part of the mill could be seen, she said.
Burhoe’s husband, a truck driver who hauls wood, was on his way to the mill when the explosion occurred, she said.
Pixelle Specialty Solutions completed its purchase of the mill this February from Verso Corp. The Jay mill and another Verso mill in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, were sold for $400 million.
Last August Verso executives said they would invest a total of $120 million in three of their pulp and paper mills, including the Androscoggin Mill, though they did not specify how much money would go toward the Jay upgrades. The goal was to reduce Verso’s heavy reliance on graphic paper and place more emphasis on specialty papers.
But Verso’s fortunes waned, and the two mills were on the sales block only three months after the investment was announced.
The company had struggled for years with the global decline in demand for coated paper.
Before the sale to Pixelle, the troubled mill had restarted its No. 3 paper line in 2018 after shutting it in 2017 and idling 120 workers.
In early 2015 Verso borrowed heavily to acquire its larger competitor NewPage. Eight months later, Verso announced it would lay off 300 employees in Jay and shut down its No. 1 pulp dryer and No. 2 paper machine, bringing the total headcount to about 565. In early 2016, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and exited it later that summer.
There has been at least one safety violation at the mill in the past few years. In 2017, when the mill was operating under the ownership of Verso Corp., the Androscoggin Mill was cited for a safety violation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after a worker’s hand got stuck in a paper machine. Two of the worker’s fingers were amputated because of the incident.
BDN writers Lori Valigra and Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.