Death Watch in a Mill Town

High oil prices may be the final blow for a legendary paper plant.

Millinocket's Katahdin paper mill is expected to close soon.

Millinocket's Katahdin paper mill is expected to close soon.

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MILLINOCKET, MAINE—The name Millinocket comes from the Abenaki Indian expression for the "many islands," a fitting description of the region near the geographic center of th e state. It was the thousands of acres of timberland and the rivers, on which logs could be floated, that attracted the paper makers a century ago. But mention Millinocket in New England, and it's never clear if you're speaking about the town itself or its old industrial anchor, the Katahdin paper mill, once the world's largest paper producing facility. In fact, there was a time when most phone books on the East Coast came from the Millinocket mill.

The mill no longer holds that title, but its No. 11 machine still spins out more than a thousand miles of paper a day in rolls wider than a two-lane road, mostly for glossy circulars and magazines (including in the past U.S. News). That's more than enough to paper a highway from Boston to Chicago. It has been a mild summer and a relatively good one for making paper, with orders for the high-quality "supercalendared" stock flowing in. But the mill and the town are facing a hard winter. The abrupt jump in fuel oil prices has made paper production dauntingly expensive, perhaps too expensive to keep the mill going, while the soaring cost of home heating oil has made living here equally challenging for anxious millworkers and other residents.

Sitting in a conference room in the mill's ivy-covered, brick administrative building, located at one end of the town's main street, mill manager Serge Sorokin outlines the problem on a whiteboard. "This is what oil prices means for Millinocket," he says, writing with a red felt marker. "We use about 400,000 barrels of fuel oil per year, and 18 months ago, we bought it at around $40 per barrel." He writes the numbers on the board. "Now, the price per barrel is $110." Sorokin, who studied paper engineering at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, does the arithmetic and underlines the corporate bottom line: The annual cost of making paper went up here by $28 million.

But the bottom line that matters most here is that the mill could close within weeks, unless the company, Maine's governor, and its congressional delegation are able to find funding to help keep No. 11 rolling. Already, paper orders have dropped off because of the possible closing, and there is talk that skittish national retailers dropped plans to occupy some of the vacant space in the town's commercial strip. The company scraped together enough orders to keep the mill running through the end of August.

A sister mill in East Millinocket long ago supplemented its oil boiler with a biomass burner, which uses treetops and boughs as fuel. Normally, those cuttings are left on the ground when the timber is cleared. Not only does the sister mill still churn out phone-book paper, but it also produces more power from the biomass boiler than it can use, pumping some of the energy back into the power grid. For years, there's been talk of similarly adapting the Katahdin mill, but installation and retrofitting the existing equipment would cost millions of dollars and take time. "Biomass is an attractive option, but it's hard to see how we can get there from here," says Bill Manzer, a senior vice president at the Toronto-based Fraser Paper, which operates both facilities.

Social costs. Michael Michaud's first job in 1973 was driving a truck for the East Millinocket Mill. His father worked there for 40 years, his grandfather for 45. Now a Democratic congressman for Maine's Second District, he is working to find emergency funding to help keep the Katahdin mill open, to provide home heating oil assistance to low-income residents, and to help with the often overlooked social costs that come with layoffs. "When these things happen, there's an increase in alcohol and drug use, domestic violence, a loss of retirement savings, and higher healthcare costs that often get overlooked by people in Washington who may see more drilling for domestic oil as the catch-all solution," he says. Since he left the mill to run for Congress in 2002 (after serving part time in the state Legislature), he's still on the books as an employee on unpaid leave. "You want to be optimistic and give people hope," he says, "but it can't be false hope either."

Corrected on 8/6/08: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a type of paper produced by the Katahdin paper mill. It is supercalendered paper.