NASHVILLE PLANTATION – Irving Forest Products, Inc., announced Tuesday the permanent closure of the Pinkham sawmill at Nashville Plantation, just south of Portage Lake off Route 11.
Officials with J.D. Irving, Limited, of Saint John, New Brunswick, said a recent fire at their Irving Forest Products facility in this small Aroostook County community Sunday night was just the latest in a list of difficulties that have plagued the business since earlier this year and led to the decision to close the facility.
“Lumber prices and demand have fallen significantly with the ongoing slump in U.S. home construction,” said Gaston Poitras, vice president of Irving.
Rising energy and transportation costs were major factors in the decision to close the mill.
Substantial increases in energy costs (97 percent since 2000) as well as escalating transportation costs (40 percent since 2000) have also impacted the competitiveness of this mill, said Poitras in a press release.
“The decision to close a mill is never an easy one. The people we work with in this small community are also our neighbors. We are working very hard to identify other opportunities within our organization for the employees at the Pinkham sawmill. We will also be providing voluntary severance packages and have engaged local human resource professionals to support those who need assistance preparing resumes and applying for new work,” said Poitras.
The mill had temporarily shut down in mid-January, citing a slump in the U.S. housing market for the decision. The company had brought the mill back online in early June, with about 45 employees returning to work as the business hoped for improvements in the housing market when warmer temperatures arrived and construction got under way across the nation. But rising operating costs, combined with a drop in demand for lumber from the mill, left officials no choice in the matter.
“The Pinkham sawmill has operated on reduced shifts for the past three years and has been open for only three months this year. Yesterday’s fire, resulting in the complete loss of the planer mill section of the site, has accelerated the schedule for the shutdown,” said Poitras.
Sunday’s fire was called in around 10:30 p.m., according to Ashland Fire Chief Ned LaBelle. “We left the scene around 1 a.m.”
“We had about 20 crew members from Ashland and another three or four from Portage on the scene for about three hours,” said LaBelle.
LaBelle said crews had an issue with high power lines but once it was confirmed there was no power to them, firefighters were able to do their job.
“There were transformers right outside the building. Once it was confirmed safe, we were able to put the fire out,” said LaBelle.
According to LaBelle, the fire was contained to a “small, cement building hooked to the planer mill.”
“That’s where all the electrical panels are to run everything. I believe it was caused by a previous fire that took place in the same location about 20 hours prior. The second fire caused extensive damage,” said LaBelle. “It’s believed the fire was electrical in nature.”
No injuries were reported as the result of the fire.
The company anticipates there will be cleanup and other work for most employees for approximately two weeks.
“At that time, or about Aug. 25, the mill will permanently close,” said Poitras.
Poitras said the company will try to place as many employees as possible in other positions with the company.
“After openings in the Woodlands operations and the Dixfield sawmill are filled, the closure will result in the layoff of approximately 44 employees. Five people will remain employed at the Pinkham sawmill site to receive logs from company-owned lands as well as private woodlot owners,” said Poitras.
The company continues to provide jobs to over 550 Mainers at its Dixfield sawmill and woodlands operation, which provides a sustainable wood supply to Maine’s five major pulp and paper companies.
Following news of the pending closure, Congressman Mike Michaud issued his own statement.
“Pinkham sawmill and its employees have gone through a lot in the past few months. They’ve shut down, reopened, and are now closing permanently. The housing market hasn’t been easy on anyone lately, and today’s shutdown is yet another sign that we still have a ways to go before we get out of this downturn,” said Michaud.
Michaud explained while Congress recently “passed a major housing bill to help people through the current crisis, it may be some time until we see its benefits to our economy.”
“As a mill worker for nearly 30 years at Great Northern Paper Company, I know how devastating this news is for these workers and their families. I appreciate the fact that some of the workers losing their jobs will be offered opportunities at the company’s other mills. Mainers have rallied for each other during difficult times in the past and will do so now. In the days and weeks ahead, my office will work to provide whatever assistance is necessary to help these workers,” said Michaud.
For Debbie Carney, town clerk of Ashland, the news hit especially close to home.
“We just got the news. My son-in-law works there,” said Carney. “It’s a shame; it will affect so many families.”