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Globe Magazine

The paper mill was everything to the people of Jay, Maine. Then it exploded

Now as the damaged plant limps along, and layoffs come, a community is left to wonder: Is this how our mill town dies?

A logging truck travels through Jay, Maine, on April 16, the day after a mill explosion that is still shaking the town’s economy.
A logging truck travels through Jay, Maine, on April 16, the day after a mill explosion that is still shaking the town’s economy.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

JAY, MAINE, 90 MINUTES DUE NORTH of Portland, has a Dollar Tree, a Hannaford, a half-dozen churches, a gun shop, and a convenience store, Franchetti’s Home Town Variety, reputed to have the best pizza on the planet.

With a population of just under 5,000, the town sits at the heart of the nation’s most forested state. Since the late 19th century, it has focused its economic energies on making logs into paper. In the early 1960s, Jay loomed so large in the industry that the International Paper Co. chose it to build what was then the world’s most sophisticated mill for wood pulp, there on the banks of the Androscoggin River. “It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen,” remembers Dennis Couture, who, at age 6, went to the grand opening holding hands with his mother (his father was a millworker). “And soon the mill was making the paper for those 1,200-page Sears, Roebuck catalogs. I thought, They’re making enough paper to feed the world.

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Smoke rises from an explosion at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay on April 15.
Smoke rises from an explosion at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay on April 15.Rebecca Burhoe

Many of Jay’s residents, predominantly French-Canadian Catholics, were already working at International Paper’s Otis Mill, which had been operating downtown for decades. Now workers began pouring into the new Androscoggin Mill, to feed the pulp digester at its center and shape the output into paper. Maine loggers from up to 300 miles to the north descended upon the mill with truckloads of pulpwood — the gnarled, skinny tips of trees, the twisting branches that could not be hewn into lumber — and drove away richer. And woodlot owners managed their lands with the confidence that they could turn their runt trees into Jay pulp, thereby giving their straighter, thicker trees sufficient space and sunlight to grow into lucrative lumber.

There are eight paper mills in Maine, and right up until this spring, the one in Jay, built more than a half-century ago for about $54 million, processed more low-grade wood — pine, hemlock, spruce, fir, tamarack — than any other. Then on April 15, just after noon, the digester exploded, bursting like a volcano and sending a brown geyser of wood chips several hundred feet into the air. A second, newer digester was bent and ruined by the fall of the first one. A widely-circulated video captured the logging trucks halted nearby as their windshields got pelted with dark slurry.

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Dennis Couture, now 61 and retired after 37 years in the Androscoggin Mill, was helping his priest fix a bread-slicing machine when the digester blew. The video reached his phone within five minutes, and he says, “My first thought was, That digester’s right in the middle of that plant. I’m going to be going to 30 to 50 funerals.

A few hours later, when the mill’s new owners, Pixelle Specialty Solutions of Pennsylvania, announced that no one had died, Couture was stunned. He thought the company had to be lying. But a sliver of luck underlay that horrible afternoon: No workers were near the digester when it exploded. No one was seriously injured. Still, after the debris settled, it started to become clear how grave the explosion would be for Maine’s thinly populated, almost endless forested hinterlands. Although the mill could limp along for some time, an estimate for a replacement digester — $200 million to $300 million — began making the rounds in town. To replace both digesters would cost about half a billion, and the construction would likely take more than a year.

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A kind of alchemy takes place in a digester. A giant steel cylinder typically about 10 stories high, it’s the steaming pressure cooker in which wood chips are delignified — that, is divested of their woody rigidity and transformed into a wet mass to be rolled flat, dried, and made into paper.

As it spends three or so hours masticating each batch of chips, a digester heats the wood to well over 300 degrees. It generates a dark stew-like toxic waste product, “black liquor,” which is piped into an adjacent machine, called a recovery boiler, where it is evaporated and burned and then washed with a “weak white liquor,” an alkaline solution. A series of chemical reactions ensues, and all the while the noxious black liquor stays sealed away from the outside world, until at last it becomes, harmlessly, the very steam that powers the digester’s giant turbines.

You don’t need a PhD in chemistry to know that the machines at a paper mill do powerful work. Just standing near a recovery boiler is enough. “Basically,” one former millworker told me recently, “the thing is hot. It’s vibrating, and there are continuous explosions going on in there.”

In Jay, those explosions spell money. In 2009, the mill accounted for 70 percent of Jay’s tax revenue. Last year it covered 46 percent. And now there’s a fear that the number may soon plummet to zero. Pixelle has made no promises that it will spend hundreds of millions to buy a new digester for the Androscoggin Mill. It’s kept its mill in Jay open, but it has also laid off 59 of the plant’s 500 employees and telegraphed that more job cuts may come. To feed the two working paper machines at the Jay mill, it’s buying pulp from another nearby mill — an expensive and likely unsustainable scheme. Maine’s paper and wood industry, which accounts for 15 percent of the state’s economy, is now up against the ropes, after many years of being repeatedly punched. And in town, the question on everyone’s mind is: How will Jay survive this?

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The accident destroyed a massive digester at the heart of the plant. A replacement could cost $200 million to $300 million, a price mill owner Pixelle Specialty Solutions, based in Pennsylvania, may not be willing to pay.
The accident destroyed a massive digester at the heart of the plant. A replacement could cost $200 million to $300 million, a price mill owner Pixelle Specialty Solutions, based in Pennsylvania, may not be willing to pay.Russ Dillingham/Associated Press

IF YOU ARE READING THIS STORY ON PAPER, you are a rare breed. The sale of paper has been nose-diving for 15 years, and this has profound implications for Maine, where 89 percent of the landmass is forested. Six paper mills have closed in the state since 2010, causing about 2,000 jobs to vanish. Meanwhile, bioenergy, another market for Maine’s low-grade wood, has also suffered. Since the 1980s, Maine loggers and sawmill operators have brought their least marketable scrap wood — ”hog fuel,” they call it — to biomass plants that convert the refuse into electricity. But natural gas prices have plummeted, largely because of fracking, making biomass plants uncompetitive. Since 2018, four of the state’s six biomass plants have closed.

The Androscoggin Mill alone consumed 20 percent of Maine’s pulpwood, so back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that Maine’s economy could lose about $2 billion a year until Jay has a digester again.

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To gauge the catastrophe, I gravitate to Jay’s Androscoggin Mill. Sitting 1.5 miles outside of downtown, and operating 24-7, the place is its own universe of steam-belching columns and gargantuan, windowless sheet-metal buildings. Three teams of government investigators are on site probing the blast.

But, I soon learn, reporters are not allowed on the mill grounds. News out of the facility has been mostly grim since International Paper ended its 109-year relationship with Jay in 2006, selling the Androscoggin Mill to Verso Corp., an Ohio-based paper company that is owned in part by hedge funds. By 2015, Verso had cut the mill’s workforce from 1,000 to 700. The following year, Verso declared bankruptcy, prompting a comprehensive belt-tightening regimen at the mill. “We rented a chicken barn ... to store machinery,” says one former employee, “and they asked us to negotiate a rent reduction with the farmer.”

This February, Verso finally sold the mill, to Pixelle Specialty Solutions. Pixelle was formed in 2018 by a New York-based private investment firm, Lindsay Goldberg, which specializes in corporate buyouts. It paid Verso $400 million in a package deal that also gave it rights to another paper plant located in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

Pixelle purchased the Jay mill just two months before the explosion. Could the digester’s failure be blamed on something Verso did, or failed to do, in maintaining the beast? Mill manager Jay Thiessen says no. “The Androscoggin mill,” he explains in a statement e-mailed by Pixelle spokesperson Alan Ulman, “has, to our knowledge, been maintained in accordance with accepted industry practices throughout its period of operation by all prior owners . . . A full root cause analysis of the incident cannot be completed until all of the relevant debris is removed from the site and analyzed.”

When I meet with Shiloh LaFreniere, the town manager in Jay, she can only say that she’s in suspense. “We’re still waiting to see what the new reality will be,” she tells me, referencing how Jay citizens count on the mill to deliver at least half of Jay’s tax revenues. “The last five years have been a roller coaster for us. They shut down two paper machines. They’ve laid people off, and we’ve had to make difficult decisions at town meetings. We’ve cut people in most departments. The school had to look at extracurricular programs and sports. In the wake of the explosion, I’ve heard a lot of rumors. We’re trying to stay hopeful, but we just don’t know what’s coming next.”

For some, a difficult future is already here. Twenty minutes north of Jay, in Farmington, Maine, I find two out-of-work loggers sprawled on a brown sectional couch.

At 3 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, Lloyd and Matt Smith — father and son, 75 and 50 — are watching the reality show Naked and Afraid, with today’s episode set in the wilds of Africa. The Smiths are dressed for wilderness themselves, in white T-shirts, jeans, and heavy black work boots — standard loggers’ garb — but just out of habit. They’re done logging, they tell me. The closure of the Jay mill’s digester has, they swear, put the final nail in the coffin for Lloyd Smith Logging, and they may soon be joined in retirement by others. The 4,900 loggers and truckers in Maine are, on average, over 55.

Matt Smith and his father, Lloyd, say the accident at the Jay mill threatens 
to put their logging company out of business.
Matt Smith and his father, Lloyd, say the accident at the Jay mill threatens to put their logging company out of business.Bill Donahue

“I was just finishing up work on a woodlot this spring when the mill blew,” says Lloyd, who’s visiting his son from his own house 100 yards away. “It was April, and muddy. You can get fined if you’re caught driving a log truck in mud season, but after midnight, when the road’s frozen, you’re fine.”

“He fractured his ankle last fall, logging,” says Matt, “but he was doing all right. We were clear-cutting 50 acres for a solar farm, and we must have taken out north of 350 truckloads of wood over two winters. All but the last five went to the mill in Jay.”

The mill’s travails come, Matt says, at a pivotal juncture for Maine loggers. “We’ve cut all the wood we can get to easily,” he says. “We have equipment now that cuts it really fast.” COVID-19 has decreased house starts and the need for timber and, Matt says, “The prices we’re getting have dropped by a third. There’s a lot of wishful thinking going around, but I don’t think the woods industry will ever be the same. It’s a young man’s game now, and I don’t have the energy to go after it. Physically, I’m stove up.” Twenty years ago, after Matt had hooked a fallen white birch into a choker, it slipped on the snow, catapulted, and smacked him in the back, crushing three vertebrae and causing ongoing shoulder problems.

Matt doesn’t know what he’s going to do next, so we talk for a while about the joys of being in the woods. “Once in the ’90s, when my dad and I were working together in the late fall, we were right up above a 15-acre bowl where a hundred moose were herding up for the winter,” he says. “I’ve seen every animal in Maine in its natural habitat. If you take away the rules and the bureaucracy, there is nothing more pleasurable than cutting wood.”

Eventually, I join Lloyd as he strolls back to his house. He’s limping a little (the ankle) and he has trouble hearing me, thanks to the damage chain saws have wrought on his ears. Still, he finds a way to communicate. “Even today, it’s still fun cutting wood,” he tells me. “I’m a logger. I’m a woodsman.”

David Welch, who is retired, sells his custom-made cribbage boards on Facebook Marketplace.
David Welch, who is retired, sells his custom-made cribbage boards on Facebook Marketplace.Bill Donahue

AS I DRIVE THE BACK ROADS near Jay, I find constant reminders of how the woods are part of everyday local life. Outside of several houses, I see small portable sawmills — orange Wood-Mizers bought for a few thousand dollars, so that entrepreneurs can make extra cash on weekends, shaping trees into planks. In Mercer, Maine, I spy a few prize slabs in one front yard and stop to knock on the door. I discover that David Welch, 64, isn’t a sawmill operator. He’s a wood whisperer who visits local mills, looking for charismatic pieces of wood that he can turn into custom cribbage boards bearing hand-burned images.

“See that white birch behind you?” he says, pointing to a tree in his own woods. “See the way it curves? Most people don’t like wood like that, but that’s what I look for.”

Welch says he brings the wood home, and in time it will speak to him. “I’ll be watching TV, then I’ll get an idea and jump up and run out into the garage and start working,” he says. He shows me a new one, which has a silhouette of a Harley-Davidson burned into it, along with the words, “Don’t Roll the Dice if You Can’t Pay the Price.” He’ll ask $125 for the piece on Facebook Marketplace.

But it’s not about the money for Welch, who is retired. Once, he tells me, he met a 10-year-old boy who’d just lost his fishing mentor, his grandfather. The boy asked him, “Sir, would you make one with a bass on it?” When Welch delivered the board the next day, the child started to weep. “There were tears on that board,” Welch says, “tears. I did that one for free.”

West of Jay, in Norridgewock, I meet 18-year-old Eddie Hebert, whose father, a logger and forester, died of a heart attack three years ago. Hebert will attend the University of Maine this fall to study forestry — and also to be an offensive lineman for the football team. He stands 6 foot 6, weighs 340 pounds, and sports a bushy red beard. When I meet him at the Dunkin’ Donuts, he’s wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a chain saw on it. He confesses that he’s having a rough summer running his dad’s old logging business — pretty much all he can sell right now is firewood — but he nonetheless brims with optimism.

“I’m working with my cousin,” he says, “and on our biggest day so far we cut three cords that we sold for $220 each. That’s still more than I’d make working at Hannaford’s. The wood industry’s down right now. But it’s not going anywhere.” As we sit on a grassy hill by the parking lot, Hebert gestures to the straw in his drink. “In California, they’ve banned plastic straws and they’re using wood straws. Every day, people out there are saying, ‘We need reusable products.’ There will be an industry waiting for me when I get out of college.”

Jay’s town manager, Shiloh LaFreniere, at the town office in 2016.
Jay’s town manager, Shiloh LaFreniere, at the town office in 2016.david leaming/Morning Sentinel


HEBERT IS NOT THE ONLY ONE in the wood business who sees a bright future. Over the past four years, investors have poured almost a billion dollars into reinventing Maine’s pulp and paper mills for a changing market. In Jay in 2018, Verso committed $17 million to retool the Androscoggin Mill’s No. 3 paper machine, once reserved for making magazine paper, so that it could create cardboard boxes and labels for the Amazon.com economy. Farther north, in Old Town, Maine, Chinese billionaire Zhang Yin recently spent $100 million to reopen a shuttered mill that now makes great quantities of brown pulp for shipping boxes. Researchers at the University of Maine are developing a wood-based resin for 3-D printers, and in Madison, Maine, plans are afoot for a factory that will make a wood substitute for fiberglass insulation. “We’re diversifying,” says Patrick Strauch, the executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council. “We’re gaining resilience.”

Still, in my four days touring Western Maine, the mood seems largely glum. One afternoon, in a small park, I meet with one of the 59 mill employees Pixelle laid off in July. Speaking anonymously, in deference to a nondisclosure agreement the company has asked him to sign, the man is rueful as he recalls the decades he spent at the Androscoggin Mill. “I loved that plant,” he says. “When I was younger, I’d work 16-hour shifts 16 days in a row. International Paper treated us very well. They wanted us to be happy. We had the best mechanics, the best chemical engineers.” He continues, “That plant, it won’t last. A new digester will cost too much.”

I head to Strong, Maine, one morning to meet logging magnate Bob Thorndike at his long, low office. “Already this year we’ve taken 800 truckloads of wood and chipped them for biofuel,” he says. Normally, the wood would have gone to Jay and made him twice as much profit. “We got one mechanical logging team — 12 people — that’s sidelined,” Thorndike says. “Some have just retired. Some, we’ve found a little bit of excavating for them to do. It’s not a good time.”

And Strong was already down. It once was the self-proclaimed “Toothpick Capital of the World.” That slogan was on the town’s firetruck because Forster Manufacturing used to churn out up to 20 million toothpicks a day in its plant. But in 2003, after 116 years in Strong, Forster left town. “Everybody used to come here in the morning to work,” Thorndike says. “Now you just see everybody leaving.”

Is Jay fated to become, like Strong, another has-been town?

LaFreniere, Jay’s town manager, says, “I can’t even imagine Jay without a mill. The mill has just been part of our community forever. My dad worked at the mill.”

When I contact Maine-based forest economist Eric Kingsley, though, he regards closure as a possibility and poses a series of skeptic’s questions about Pixelle. “What other manufacturing options are in front of the company?” he asks, noting it has three other paper plants, in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. “New digesters are very expensive and presume a long life in front of the mill,” he says. “What are Pixelle’s views on the future markets for the grades of paper the mill makes or can make?”

The e-mail I receive hours later from Ulman, the Pixelle spokesman, hardly envisions a rosy future. Instead, it promises more dismissal notices. “Operating competitively in our new configuration will require reductions over time,” it reads. “It is an unfortunate consequence of a situation no one wanted, expected, or caused.”

Asked whether Pixelle will build a new digester, the company offers no tells. “We continue to evaluate the situation,” the statement says, adding that Pixelle will determine its “path forward in the fourth quarter of 2020.”

In the end, I find myself turning back to Dennis Couture, the retired millworker, for the odds on digester construction. When he and I meet in the basement of St. Rose of Lima, his church in Jay, he considers the plant’s future very seriously, leaning back in his flimsy folding chair, then stroking his white beard before crossing his powerful forearms and speaking. “Because nobody died,” he says, “I think there’s a glimmer of hope that they could rebuild it. A glimmer. I’d put it at 20 percent. I sure wish I could be more optimistic because I remember going to that grand opening. I remember eating the maple sugar candies they had under the tent there. I saw so much money spent on that plant in the last 55 years — probably $2 or $3 billion. And to think that all that could fade to nothing in my own lifetime?” Couture shakes his head. “Wow.”

A moment later his priest comes into the room. The Rev. Paul Dumais is 48 and slender, with a neat black goatee and a stiff white Roman collar. He is, it turns out, from an even more remote Maine mill town — Madawaska, on the New Brunswick border — and he grew up respectful of mill work. “There’s a skill to it,” he says. “There’s a craft, and you want that to continue.” He is so attuned to the union in Maine between the mill and the church that in 2017, when a paper machine shut down at the plant, he held a special Mass. To his astonishment, only one millworker came. “I was naive,” he says. “The workforce has become considerably more dispersed and also less tied to the church.”

But Father Dumais is still thinking of Maine’s ancient bonds when he and I step outside and find ourselves facing the brick smokestack of the now-defunct Otis Mill, a stone’s throw away. “The mill and the church,” he says. “Those were the two lungs of the town.” His words are wistful and tender, at once a benediction and an elegy. And they make me sad, for I know that very soon it may be elegy time in Jay all over again.

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Bill Donahue is a writer based in New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @billdonahue13. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.