A section of the Androscoggin Mill is heavily damaged in April when a pulp digester explodes. Pixelle Specialty Papers announced Wednesday it will not rebuild its pulp mill and will permanently idle its third paper machine. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

JAY — The owner of the Androscoggin Mill announced Wednesday that it will not rebuild a wood pulp digester that exploded April 15 and will permanently shut down one paper machine idled by the blast.

Alan Ulman, spokesman for Pixelle Specialty Solutions based in Pennsylvania, said the decision is part of its long-term strategy to continue manufacturing specialty papers on its other two machines and utilizing more than 250 full-time employees.

About 177 jobs have been eliminated at the mill since the explosion, which halted manufacturing for eight days and initiated months of recovery and strategic planning to ensure the mill would operate successfully and competitively.

The mill will continue using pulp sourced from other mills, including Maine-based facilities.

Pixelle also announced it has established a $1 million fund to support job retraining for those laid off as a result of the pulp digester rupture. It will also develop an ongoing program to further support former employee job retraining, while at the same time continue its current program to assist with tuition expenses for the company’s active employees, according to its news release.

“We are committed to providing support to our dedicated employees who lost their jobs as a result of the digester rupture, and we hope that the training assistance we are announcing today will prove valuable in relaunching their careers,” Pixelle CEO Timothy Hess said in the release.

“This long-term plan keeps a large number of employees working to meet our customers’ needs for excellent products and services,” Hess said. “It also benefits many in Maine impacted by the pulp digester incident by sourcing pulp from Maine-based providers.

“The Pixelle mill in Jay, Maine, is a vital part of our four-mill specialty paper manufacturing platform,” he said. “We intend to continue to invest in the mill to enhance its position as a supplier of choice to our customers.”

The mill’s specialty papers portfolio includes bleached and natural kraft products for food packaging, pressure-sensitive release liners and labels, packaging tapes, insulation backing for building materials and wet-strength and grease-resistant products.

The idled paper machine produced commodity grades.

Mill Manager Eric Hanson said, “The best path forward for the Jay mill is to continue to operate our two specialty machines using purchased pulp.”

He also commended former and current employees, calling them “extraordinary.”

“In 2020, they encountered the COVID-19 pandemic followed by the pulp digester rupture,” Hanson said. “Despite these challenges, they restored the mill, operated it safely and in an environmentally responsible manner, provided exceptional product quality and service to our customers, and transformed the mill into one that will be competitive for the long term.”

Town Manager Shiloh LaFreniere said Wednesday that town officials are grateful that Pixelle has a long-term plan to continue the operation of the Androscoggin Mill.

“Their intent to provide resources for product development and their plans for future investment in the facility indicate their dedication to the viability of this mill,” she said. “At the same time, we are disappointed that they will not be rebuilding the pulp mill and restarting the idled paper machine. We recognize the impact this will have on our extended forestry community and our thoughts continue to be with those that are affected.”

As the town moves forward through the valuation process of the mill next spring, the impact of this change will be recognized in significantly reduced taxable value, LaFreniere said.

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“As we have in the past, we will be working through the state process again to seek relief from this impact on our taxpayers,” she said.

Gov. Janet Mills called Wednesday’s announcement “incredibly difficult news for Jay, for Western Maine, and for the entire state of Maine. It is another blow to Maine’s vital forest products sector, from those who work in the mills to those who cut timber and deliver wood.

“My administration will do all we can to help those impacted by this decision, including providing unemployment and transition services to those laid off earlier,” she said. “We will work harder than ever to stabilize and diversify our critical forest products industry and expand and strengthen markets for the forest products supply chain and the Maine people it employs.”

Jessica Picard, communications manager for the Maine Department of Labor, said the department “stands ready to collaborate and work with Pixelle and partners on this retraining initiative. MDOL’s Rapid Response Team has been working one-on-one with laid-off workers, providing them with information and helping them identify and take next steps, and will continue to do all we can.”

She said some affected workers are utilizing CareerCenter services for job search assistance and possible training, some have already found new employment, and some have retired.

The department issues a weekly newsletter for job-seekers, highlighting training and job opportunities in their local area: https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/MEDOL/bulletins/2afb82b.

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