SKOWHEGAN — The largest maker of coated paper in North America hummed in the January chill.
Inside the Sappi Fine Paper mill on Waterville Road, it was warm — and busy.
By the end of the day, 2,200 tons of coated paper were to be made, rolled, wrapped and put on trucks and rail cars for use on glossy pages and covers of fashion magazines all over the world.
The rare look Thursday inside the workings of the seventh-largest paper mill in the world was all about the company’s ability to sustain jobs locally and to be competitive in a global market, said Sappi marketing director Heather Pelletier.
“We do not routinely give media tours. In fact, nobody here can remember when the last time we’ve ever done one was,” Pelletier said. “Our CEO for Sappi North America, Mark Gardner, a Maine man, wants to reach out through the local media to the local community. We don’t tend to talk about what we’re doing, but we feel like we have a great story.”
Sappi actually is two mills: the pulp mill where raw timber is delivered and processed and the paper-making mill, where three large paper machines turn out the finished coated product — 800,000 tons a year.
There are about 800 employees at the Somerset mill in Skowhegan, including 170 salaried employees. The hourly workers are represented by four labor unions.
Sappi, with New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., is one of the top two employers in Somerset County. The company ranks in the top 20 employers in Maine when including employees from its Westbrook mill, according to state labor statistics.
Added jobs associated with mill operations include work for wood suppliers, loggers and truckers; as well as contractors, vendors and area businesses along the supply chain, with everything from gas and oil to restaurants and grocery stores, Pelletier said.
For every paper mill job, another six or seven jobs are created in the community, paper mill production manager Tony Ouellette said. Company officials would not say what the starting wage is at Sappi, but said the pay is competitive with other paper mills in the state.
From inside the control room at the No. 3 paper machine Thursday, Ouellette said 50 people work on just that one machine, from the wet end where the pulp comes in, to the dry end, 150 yards away, from where the finished coated product is shipped.
Paper machines No. 1 and No. 2 are nearly identical to the No. 3 machine and can pick up production on a particular job if something goes wrong. The process is monitored from seven computers in the control room.
Processed pulp fiber — made from mostly hard wood — enters the paper mill underground from the pulp mill and from storage towers. The mixture is fed into a machine that presses and forms the mix into sheets.
A series of giant rollers feeds the wide sheets along the machine route, drying them as they go and reusing the excess water and liquid mix from previous runs. If the sheets dry too fast, the paper wrinkles; if they dry too slowly, they crinkle like crepe paper.
Motorized scanners run along each 20-foot-wide roll, checking for holes and flaws in the paper as it dries.
“We’re running about 3,800 feet per minute,” Ouellette said. “It’s all wrapping up onto a very large spool at the other end. There’s about 40 tons of product on one large spool; 300 inches wide and 6 feet in diameter.”
The sheets next are coated with something like a latex paint and clay, and dried, one side at a time. Giant rollers continue to feed the paper along, finally to “jumbo reels” and then to winders where the huge rolls of paper are cut to fit customer demands for printing size.
The building that houses each paper machine is 60 feet tall, made of steel girders, with room for heavy cranes to lift the giant rolls.
Sappi — originally short for South African Pulp & Paper Industries — purchased the S.D. Warren Co. from Scott Paper Co. in 1994. It is a publicly traded company with about 15,000 employees worldwide.
The company pays the town of Skowhegan about $9.76 million in real estate and property taxes annually.
“A sustainable corporation is one that not only returns a profit for the shareholders, but takes care of the people and the planet,” Pelletier said. “We have three pillars — people, planet and prosperity. All of those things are good for business, too. It’s just the right thing to do.”
She said the company recycles the water it uses at the mill, taps waste from the pulping process and burns it to help run the mill. The mill also cleanly burns old tires as a fuel to save on oil usage.
Since the $40 million retrofit of the pulp mill was completed in 2010, the company has reduced its use of oil from 900,000 barrels a year to 200,000 a year.
The No. 3 paper machine, which was installed in 1991, had a $13 million upgrade, which was completed in October.
Doug Harlow — 612-2367