An ‘economic crisis’ in Maine’s paper industry, mapped

Madison Paper Industries announced it will shut its doors in May.

And then there will be eight.

The latest paper mill shutdown announcement will make for five major closures in the past three years, after East Millinocket, Lincoln, Old Town and Bucksport.

The accounting has varied in the wake of the Madison closure, but without it the operating mills include those in: Jay, Skowhegan, Westbrook, Baileyville, Rumford, Madawaska, Auburn and Waterville.

(All but Auburn and Waterville primarily make or buy wood pulp to make their products, rather than from larger “parent rolls” of paper.)

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King called the situation “an economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude” in a letter to federal officials, echoing what they said they’ve heard from people in rural communities affected by the closures.

The map of those mills now closed shows how hard Penobscot County has been hit by those losses in the past decade.

The history of employment at each mill is difficult to track, but the recent losses are clear in county figures, with the most recent blow in Penobscot County reflected with the shutdown of Great Northern Paper Co. in East Millinocket at the end of 2013.

The federal data now available only reflect employment figures through the second quarter of 2015, and only for counties with at least three employers at a given level of industry detail — in this case, paper manufacturing.

That includes smaller companies in paper manufacturing as well, and not just large mills. (Statewide federal figures counted 26 paper manufacturing businesses in mid-2015, less than half the total in 2001.)

The losses reflect an economic harm to those areas broader than just the loss of thousands of jobs in recent years — the entire supply chain and communities where those relatively high wages would be spent have been hit hard.

The Professional Logging Contractors of Maine on Monday called for legislative action to help the forest industry, saying the Madison closure “means the loss of the last major buyer of spruce-fir pulp in the state.”

The numbers have been grim for the paper industry that built many of the towns where mills are now closing.

At the county level, federal data track that decline. But the detailed figures are only available in areas with at least three employers in paper manufacturing.

In the latest numbers — up to the second quarter of 2015 — Penobscot County had three such employers, including the Lincoln mill. Somerset also had three, including Madison.

And so, this year, that county-level employment data will likely start to show a different trend: Too few employers to disclose how many people are on papermakers’ payrolls.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.