GORHAM — The White Mountain Paper Company expects to restart tissue production this week at the Cascades mill on the banks of the Androscoggin River.
Production had to be halted for an estimated 3½ weeks when the mill’s 1920s-era boilers failed to pass a third-party safety inspection, required for all pressure vessels by the N.H. Department of Labor, explained CEO Price Howard in a Friday telephone interview. The mill’s “Business Critical” COVID-19 restrictions canceled an in-person interview.
“We’ll be able to start working on fulfilling a 45-day backlog of orders,” Howard said.
The mill’s boilers produce the steam needed to operate the tissue machine’s big Yankee dryer as well as to heat water and the buildings themselves, the CEO explained.
“Although we undertook due diligence before acquiring the mill on Jan. 1, 2021, there was no way we could anticipate this outcome,” Howard said. “There was nothing in latest inspection report to indicate this result.”
A rental boiler system shipped up from Virginia is expected to be fired up this week to run the mill’s sole operating paper machine.
Permanent boilers will likely be installed in the second quarter of 2022, likely at a cost ranging between $2 and $2.5 million, Howard said. The specifics of that replacement project will require Gorham Planning Board approval.
Similarly, back in mid-December of 2020, the prior mill owners were forced to shut down the No. 9 paper toweling machine — aka “Mr. Nibroc” — when its Yankee dryer could not pass an annual state-required safety inspection.
The mill now has 65 workers on payroll.
A regionwide search is underway to fill six positions to boost the mill’s payroll to over 70: IT technician; safety coordinator; mechanical technician, shift supervisor, and mill engineer/maintenance mentor.
Del Doyle is now on site, holding the key role as vice president of operations, reporting to Howard and the company’s board of directors.
Doyle manages, either directly or indirectly, all staff related to production, construction, maintenance, safety, warehouse, and shipping. He manages the mill’s day-to-day operations, including production planning, equipment maintenance, safety and compliance, hiring, and organizational leadership.
“Del brings 34 years of experience in the paper industry,” Howard said. “He worked his way up through the ranks across mills in six states and joined us from Dunn Paper in Port Huron, MI, where he oversaw all mill manager operations.
A Granite State native, Doyle has family in Berlin, Lancaster, and Landaff. “He and his wife, Karen, missed the mountains and wanted to be back near family,” the CEO said. “They have four grown children and a granddaughter.”
“We have made great strides as a team in repositioning the mill for sustained success,” Howard said. “There is much work to be done, but we remain committed to White Mountain’s future growth. Doyle’s proven leadership will reinforce and deepen our transition to being a top-quartile mill, establishing a culture that prides performance, teamwork, and cohesion.”
White Mountain Paper recently signed a three-year contract with members of the United Steelworkers (USW) District 4 union, Howard reported. When the boilers had to be shut down, some hourly workers were furloughed, but maintained their benefits.
When asked when any new construction was apt to take place on site, Howard replied, “Not likely until late in 2022.”
First, a massive amount of costly demolition and decluttering is planned, and Howard hopes that state and federal dollars could help with this undertaking, designed to position the company for a sustainable future.
“We’re looking to take a 950,000-sq.-ft. facility and transform it into an efficient one that’s less than half the size: between 350,000 to 400,000 sq. ft.,” he explained. Demolition includes far more than the brick buildings visible from Route 16: all underground basements, floors, utility conduits and drains must be removed, down some 50 feet to the soil that was originally in place at the level of the river itself.
Decluttering involves removing parts and equipment that’s no longer needed since the machines for which they were designed are long gone.
Howard praised the close working relationship that have been forged with both dam-owner Brookfield and electric utility company Eversource. “Once-at-week calls are the norm,” he said.
He also spoke enthusiastically about the good working relationship that WMP has forged with the Town of Gorham and the City of Berlin as well as the White Mountains Community College and area universities.
WMP also has a good working relationship with the Androscoggin Valley Regional Refuse Disposal District. Its long-term economic plan is dependent on using the District’s landfill (methane) gas, Howard said.
When asked about the paper company’s financing status, Howard replied that WMP is close to developing local representation with an entity with a long-term commitment to the region. He expects this will likely be finalized before year’s end.
Howard pointed out that although there is no way to predict the future, WMP is taking steps to “own its own future” by securing its need for environmentally-friendly fiber, becoming energy efficient, and continuing to attract a well-trained work force.
“I’m very optimistic about our future,” he said.
The Gorham Mill has been in operation since 1852, when it opened as the Berlin Sawmill. It expanded operations to include pulp and paper in 1888 and is one of the oldest operating paper mills in North America. Its tissue machine, imported from Europe, began operation in 2012 and produces 30,000 tons of product annually for the North American tissue market. It produces parent rolls of tissue that are shipped to outside converting locations and turned into premium retail quality bath tissue, kitchen towels, napkins and facial tissue. The Behrens Investment Group, a New York-based investment firm, bought the asset in bankruptcy court and has operated it for less than a year.