WESTBROOK — Emery Deabay, a paper mill worker for four decades, sees the dismantled pieces of the old Verso mill in Bucksport leaving town by train day after day and knows the trains are taking what’s left of the state’s fading paper industry with it.
The state’s once-thriving paper mill industry, like American papermaking at large, continued its downturn in 2015 in the face of closures, digitization, foreign competition and consolidation. Remaining players in the industry, which has declined from 426 mills nationally in 2005 to 326 today, say adaptation to changing consumer trends is needed for survival.
Deabay, who works in the still-operational power plant of the former mill, said it’s too late for the old Bucksport mill to adapt, but hopefully something will fill its massive footprint.
“The days of saving the mill are long gone,” Deabay said. “Get something in here that will be good for Bucksport and give us some good-paying jobs.”
Maine’s paper manufacturing industry employed nearly 13,000 people as recently as the early 2000s. The Maine Pulp and Paper Association said it now employs 6,150. There are fewer than half as many mills in the state as there were in 1980.
The paper industry is used to economic downturn, but 2015 was especially cruel to Maine papermaking, which was once a vital point of entry to middle-class life in the largely rural state. The bankrupt Lincoln Paper and Tissue mill was purchased after a November auction. Wisconsin-based Expera Specialty Solutions has also announced plans to shutter its Old Town facility.
The sale of the Bucksport mill to a Canadian metal recycler was completed in January 2015 and demolition began in December. Other mills closed in Millinocket and East Millinocket in recent years.
The closures affect Vermont, too, because many of the state’s loggers had been selling their products in Maine.
“A significant market that is drawing wood from all over the region is going to go away,” said Michael Snyder, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. “That represents a direct and significant challenge for the workforce.”
Industry representatives blame factors including government regulations and competition from places like China, Brazil, Germany and Finland, along with competition from iPhones and Androids. But Cathy Foley, group vice president for American Forest & Paper Association, said there is still room in the marketplace for U.S.-made paper products like to-go coffee cups and the holiday packages used by online shippers.
And, to be sure, American paper is still a huge business – the paper association said the industry’s economic output was more than $217 billion in 2014, and it generates more than $50 billion in payroll annually. Maine ranked eighth in the nation in 2014 for paper and paperboard capacity.
“While digitization may have affected some paper industry products, things like Cyber Monday have become increasingly beneficial to our industry, creating demand for paper-based packaging,” Foley said.
Maine’s paper mill industry dates back to the 18th century, decades before pulp, which is used to make modern paper, came into use in the 1860s. Today the mills make the coated paper used by magazines such as Vogue, and they once supplied a considerable amount of the newsprint produced in the U.S.
Sappi Fine Paper operates the largest mill in the state – a sprawling Skowhegan facility that’s the largest mill in the country that makes coated paper. It also has a mill in Westbrook that once employed more than 2,500 and is now down to a few hundred.
The Skowhegan mill consumes about 1.5 million tons of wood per year, said Anthony Ouellette, managing director of the mill. He said the mill’s ability to survive has meant it has been able to gain market share – a rare circumstance in the industry.
“We’ll always have that optimistic fatalism that it’s going to turn,” he said. “Other mills of the same product line shut down. We’ll see that benefit, and we’ll be in much better shape.”