The first of the layoffs began with a handful of workers sent home from the overnight shift Wednesday. Mill co-owner Keith Van Scotter reiterated that the layoff is indefinite and not permanent but he did not commit to restarting paper production or adding to the mill’s tissue-making capacity.

“It is true that we are laying the assets up [preserving the boiler and paper machines] until market conditions improve,” Van Scotter said Thursday after meeting with a few hundred millworkers at The Waterfront Event Center in Lincoln.

“We made an indefinite commitment because it is not definite,” Van Scotter said. “We don’t know. We are committed now to making the tissue side of the operation as efficient as we can.”

That could mean that an eight- or nine-month layoff, which is about the time it would take to rebuild or repair the damaged boiler, could become a layoff of several years, said Duane Lugdon, the United Steelworkers union’s international representative in Maine.

Lugdon recalled that the Georgia-Pacific mill in Old Town endured a similar explosion in 1987 that took eight or nine months to repair.

A leak from a tube in the economizer section of the Old Town boiler sprayed water onto the boiler’s smelt bed, causing a catastrophic overpressurization and explosion that forced the company to rebuild the boiler, he said — almost exactly what happened in Lincoln’s mill on Nov. 2, he said.

Thursday’s meetings, Lugdon said, contained some “extremely disastrous news.” Mill leaders had told union workers for four or five weeks since the accident that they intended to rebuild the boiler as soon as they could.

“We have 200 people here out of work for an extended period of time,” Lugdon said. “It looks like it could be 12, 18 or 36 months before a decision is made to rebuild. You also have a lot of employees who don’t know whether they are laid off or whether they have to report to work.

“I understand that it is not easy to decide how it all fits together,” Lugdon added, “but it did not have to be done this way.”

Several workers leaving the 3 p.m. meeting, the first of two scheduled for Thursday, seemed resigned to their lot. They said they respected Van Scotter and mill co-owner John Wissman for their commitment to the mill but faced a difficult decision: whether to hang on until the mill owners decide how to proceed or seek different careers.

“I have skills enough so that I can go somewhere else if I want to,” said Peter Jipson, a 55-year-old millworker from Springfield. “I feel bad for the younger guys who don’t have the choices that I have.”

“Gloom and doom,” one millworker uttered as he walked out of the meeting. “That’s all we hear, gloom and doom.”

Van Scotter has declined to lay out timelines for decisions or share much of the company leadership’s thinking, saying that too many indefinite factors remain. Company workers have been working hard with insurers and engineers since the explosion occurred on Nov. 2, he said.

Van Scotter told news media after the meeting at the Waterfront that boiler replacement costs would be far more than $1 million but would not exceed $100 million. He also said that the tissue side of his business was “slightly better” than the paper side, but still very competitive.

He declined to comment on the impact of a $5 million federal government lawsuit accusing the company of defrauding ISO-New England by falsely claiming a reduction in its electricity use to gain revenue. Company officials have said they committed no wrongdoing.

The layoffs affect about half the company’s workforce. The laid-off workers attend to the company’s paper machines and pulp-making operations, the areas served by the recovery boiler, Van Scotter has said.

The company had been running one paper machine on trucked-in pulp. Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC’s three tissue-making machines are running at full capacity and will continue to, according to Van Scotter.

The Lincoln paper machines make business card and envelope stock. The tissue machines supply products for party-goods stores and medical uses.

Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who attended the meeting with members of the Maine Department of Labor’s Rapid Response Team, found the timing of the explosion and the layoffs especially tragic.

“This is a terrible situation and there are still more questions than answers,” Cain said. “People want to know the timetable for the layoffs and there are no answers right now. Anytime there are layoffs it’s a bad time, but it’s especially bad to have them happen over the holidays like this.”

The words “until market conditions warrant” have an ominous ring to them in Maine. Several paper mills statewide have cut staff or closed over the past two decades as computerization and increased global competition have cut into the state paper industry.

Cate Street Capital, which reopened the East Millinocket paper mill slightly more than two years ago, has promised to restart the Millinocket paper mill when conditions warrant. The Millinocket mill closed in September 2008, with 150 paperworkers unemployed, and hasn’t made uncoated magazine stock or newsprint since.

Before the explosion, Lincoln mill leaders had been discussing installing a new tissue machine at the mill sometime over the next few years, Van Scotter said. He said it is likely that this process will be halted until the mill’s more immediate problems are dealt with.

Under the union’s contract with the mill, union members have some say over conditions under which the layoffs shall proceed. Union and mill leaders will begin negotiating those conditions next week, Lugdon said.

Millworkers are encouraged to attend another session with the Rapid Response Team, which helps workers apply for benefits and seek jobs, at 2 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 19, at Mattanawcook Academy, Lugdon said.

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