LINCOLN, Maine (NEWS CENTER) --- A winter that saw more than 400 jobs eliminated at paper mills in Lincoln and East Millinocket begs the question of what will the future hold for what was one of Maine's most valued industries.
It was last December when directors at 'Lincoln Paper & Tissue' decided to indefinitely shut down pulp and printing paper manufacturing at the mill. According to company officials the decision came following a boiler explosion at the site one month earlier as well as the loss of a tissue customer. That resulted is more than 200 workers at the mill losing their jobs as the company shifted its focus to only making tissues.
"Our view is that tissue..while it's not a rapidly growing market..is at least a market that's growing a little," said Keith Van Scotter, who is the president of 'Lincoln Paper & Tissue,' "That being said..it's a challenging business."
Statewide paper mills across the state are in the midst of different experiences. While sites owed by Sappi in Skowhegan and Westbrook and Twin Rivers Paper Co. in Madawaska are on the cutting edge of producing high tech products, other companies are in the midst of major mergers while some are continuing to have difficulties even staying online.
State officials say that endless flux, along with continuous breakthroughs in technology, are among the reasons why jobs in the paper industry are dwindling. According to the Maine Forest Products Council in 1980 more than 18,000 people in the state had jobs making paper. As of 2011, that number has dropped to just under 7,000 while the amount of paper produced for each worker has more than doubled.
"There is a weak area that we're struggling in and its newsprint and fortunately we only have one newsprint mill in the state of Maine," said Rosaire Pelletier, who is the senior forest products advisor for the state of Maine, "there's other groups that are looking at combining the paper base product or the pulp base product with other resources...so divested basically in their own markets..which I think is the way to go."
"Everybody in the paper industry is not just in the paper industry any more," said former state economist Charles Colgan, "they are in the industry of whatever assets they own allow them to be in."
Finding new ways to bring in revenue and subsidize paper-making costs has also become a focus for many companies. For years Verso Paper in Bucksport has generated electricity to sell on the grid by burning biomass. Meanwhile Cate Street Capital, which manages mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket, is still hoping ventures into the wood pellet market will allow it to subsidize paper-making costs at the East Millinocket mill.
Company officials decided to stop production at that mill over the winter in order to focus on ways to become more cost efficient. At this point it's still unclear if the roughly 250 workers there will be headed back to work.
"I see the industry as having to..more than anything else continually innovate either on the production side...or the marketing side or the product side," Colgan said, "The old days of the paper industry where you kind of..you just cut the trees, throw it into the pulper...roll it out into paper and send it out in a truck because there was always someone who needed it are long gone. Now there's so much more work that you have to do."