JAY —  The explosion that rocked the Androscoggin Mill on Wednesday afternoon left many with a sickening sense of deja vu. 

On the minds of some was the blast in Farmington in September that killed a veteran firefighter and injured seven others. 

But when the smoke cleared, fire officials announced, with evident relief, that no one had been seriously injured. 

“After Farmington seven months ago, we were fearing the worst,” state Fire Marshal’s Office Sgt. Joel Davis said, “but by the grace of God, it turned out much different today.” 

The explosion, Davis said, occurred in the digester area of the mill. A mill official described the digester as a large container used to cook the chips to reduce them into individual fiber for the paper-making process. 

A couple of people were treated for respiratory problems, Davis said, but otherwise there were no casualties after the explosion sent smoke and debris more than 100 feet into the air. 

“The headline today,” said Roxie Lassetter, human resources manager for mill owner Pixelle Specialty Solutions, “is that everyone is accounted for and there are no injuries on that mill site. It’s nothing short of a miracle and we are grateful.” 

Bob Berry, owner of Main-land Development Consultants in Livermore Falls, said he had some workers at the mill on Wednesday. Like others, he was relieved to find out that no one had been hurt. 

“We had Main-lander’s on site today performing some survey work,” Berry said. “Thankfully, they are fine and now home. I understand that there were no casualties in the horrific explosion, a miracle for which I thank the good Lord. I also thank the first responders, who arrived quickly and in droves. Their bravery never ceases to amaze me! Now, I hope and pray that mill, local, and state officials can quickly secure the site, perform investigations, and enact repairs so the mill can return to doing what they do: producing the best paper anywhere.” 

Yet there is still the matter of determining what caused the violent blast. 

Lassetter said the explosion was caused by an “apparent rupture in a pressure vessel” at 11:55 a.m. The State Fire Marshal’s Office was planning to begin investigating Thursday morning. 

According to Lassetter, roughly 165 mill workers are on site on any given afternoon. None were in the immediately vicinity of the blast, she said. 

Lassetter said emergency protocols were immediately followed and that the company was grateful for the support of first responders, who remained on site. 

Roxie Lassetter, human resources manager for Pixelle’s paper mill in Jay, speaks to the media Wednesday about the explosion at the mill. Donna Perry/Sun Journal

“The incident released a mixture of wood fiber, water and pulping liquor,” she said. “At this point, we are evaluating potential environmental impact. In addition, we are taking appropriate steps to stabilize the process to restore order to the mill site (as soon as possible). Again, it is very early in the process. We will provide more details as they become available.” 

When fire crews arrived at the mill, there was a small fire on the roof of the plant, Davis said. After determining what chemicals might have been involved in the blast, firefighters quickly extinguished the flames. 

According to a public filing of dangerous materials used at the Jay plant when it was owned by Verso, the mill typically has 40,000 pounds of chlorine dioxide and 54,000 pounds of ammonia. The filing does not list any other large quantities of hazardous products.  

After the explosion, at least two trucks parked near the mill were crushed as debris rained down on them. 

Police helped block traffic around the mill on Riley Road, and firefighters sprayed vehicles to decontaminate them. 

Davis said no evacuations of the area around the mill proved necessary. 

News of the explosion spread fast across social media, with a video of the blast circulating quickly on Facebook and several news sites. Rick Pratt of Richard Carrier Trucking shot the video while waiting in a line of trucks, and was pelted with debris. 

In the aftermath of the blast, a brown stringy substance, a mix of wood fiber, water and pulping liquor, could be found in several areas around the mill.  

There were also witness accounts that described a violent explosion. Rebecca Burhoe said she was driving on Route 140 when she saw it. 

“I heard a muffled bang and could see the mill across the river, and I looked over” and saw an explosion in the main portion of the mill, she said. “It’s just in the middle of the mill.” 

The cloud of smoke was so dense she couldn’t see the stacks. “I couldn’t see anything,” she said. 

Debris was flying across the river from the mill, she said, landing on Route 140. Other witnesses reported debris landing in the Hannaford parking lot. 

“I can’t even tell you the amount of first responders, fire departments, it’s crazy,” Burhoe said. 

Drone footage of the mill showed a heap of debris still smoking roughly an hour after the blast. 

Later Wednesday afternoon, mill officials were securing the blast site, making sure it was safe for investigators to enter. Davis, state fire investigator, said his team was expecting to go in early Thursday morning. 

In August 2019, when Verso still owned the plant, the company announced a $120 million upgrade, much of it focused on the No. 3 and the No. 4 paper machines at the Androscoggin Mill where 500 people were employed. 

Pixelle purchased the mill earlier this year as part of a $400 million deal that also included a plant in Wisconsin. 

According to Pixelle literature, the Androscoggin mill has the capacity to produce about 425,000 tons of paper per year and currently produces flexible packaging papers, release liner base, specialty labels, craft papers and linerboard. 

There was no indication that there had been significant problems with the digester at the mill in the recent past. However, the equipment has caused problems in other areas. An explosion involving a digester at an IP mill  in Florida in 2017 caused between $80 million and $120 million in damage.

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