OLD TOWN, Maine (From news reports) -- Production at the reopened Old Town pulp mill came to a halt last week so that the facility's new owner can make upgrades to the machinery that helps break down wood into a pulp.
But ND Paper says that it has allowed affected employees to keep taking a paycheck while the mill is idled for an estimated four to six weeks. It has invited them to keep working on tasks not directly related to pulp production, but two workers volunteered to take time off with no pay, according to company spokesperson Amy Lee.
About 130 employees have been working at the mill since it reopened last summer.
"Even though the mill is down, everyone is still working if they wanted to," Lee said.
ND Paper halted production so that it can upgrade two pieces of machinery known as digesters that it inherited from the mill's previous owners. While those two digesters were connected to each other, Lee said that they need to be disconnected so that they can work independently and more efficiently.
Old Town Mayor David Mahan said that ND Paper informed him last week that the mill would be idled. He added that it would be a positive development for the small city.
"It shows the continued investment ND Paper is doing in our community," he said. "They're just upgrading the equipment, which is great. It's once again them showing the long-term commitment they have made to our city."
ND Paper, an Illinois-based subsidiary of the Chinese company Nine Dragons Paper, began producing pulp at the reopened Old Town mill last summer after buying it in October 2018. It eventually hopes to produce 275,000 air-dried metric tons of unbleached pulp, which is generally used for making paper.
The current set-up has hampered the mill's ability to efficiently produce pulp, which its Chinese parent company uses in the production of a raw material for cardboard boxes and packing materials. Lee did not provide detailed information about how the mill's daily output of pulp has been affected by the set-up or how much the upgrade will cost, but she said that the facility is still in "start-up mode" and that its daily tonnage "can vary greatly."
"We had suspected that we might have to take those machines down and do the separation project. That decision was made last Friday," Lee said. "We've been successfully making pulp. We think if we can solve the technical issues with the digesters, we'll be doing it more efficiently and more smoothly."
While the company has estimated the upgrade could take between four and six weeks, Lee said, "it will probably be on the lesser end of that timeline."
The company also operates three other U.S. mills, including one in Rumford that it purchased in June 2018. It ships most of the pulp produced at its Old Town facility to its paper mills in China.
The Old Town mill shed nearly 200 jobs when it previously closed in 2015. Its then-owner, Expera Specialty Solutions, blamed the shutdown on the declining value of the Canadian dollar, excess pulp supply in the marketplace and relatively high costs of lumber wood.