Chrissy and Randy Kimball and their son Cameron pose for a photo with their logging truck in Poland on Thursday afternoon. Their business,  Kimball & Son’s Logging and Trucking, has suffered since the major explosion at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay last week. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

JAY — Many loggers and truckers around Maine who send their pulpwood to the Androscoggin Mill in Jay are uncertain what the future holds for them. There are a lot of indirect businesses that will also feel the squeeze.

“It’s not going to be good,” Randy Kimball, 36, co-owner of Kimball & Son’s Logging and Trucking in Poland with his wife, Chrissy, 36, said Thursday.

The mill restarted two paper machines on Wednesday.

On April 15, one of two digesters blew up. The large silo acted as a pressure cooker, breaking down wood chips mixed with water and chemicals under high heat and pressure into pulp for papermaking.

The paper machines were not damaged, according to representatives of owner Pixelle Specialty Solutions based in Pennsylvania. Pulp is being used from two other mills Pixelle owns and supplemental sources.

“The Pixelle Mill is the major purchaser of softwood pulp that we harvest from forest thinnings for private landowners,” Chrissy Kimball said in an email. “Our family has been working with this mill for over 20 years and it is essentially our only market for this material.”

The couple have three sons ages are 1, 5 and 7. The Kimballs also work together with Randy’s father, Ron, who owns Kimball Logging & Firewood in Poland.

“We deliver approximately 3,200 tons or 97 truckloads of softwood pulp to this mill each year,” Chrissy Kimball said.

The couple’s operation includes a skidder, loader, chipper, feller buncher, and two logging trucks.

Each product needs a place to go or they can’t meet their baseline production needs.

“Even though the mill is responsible for only 10 to 12% of our sales each year, we depend on that market heavily to ensure that we are treating the forest appropriately and maximizing landowner value,” she said.  “The Pixelle mill in Jay is vital to our operation to ensure we have a home for low-value wood as we weed the forest garden. Without this mill, we will not be able to practice appropriate forestry and ensure that the garden is grown properly and the landowner achieves their long-term goals in the end.”

Without softwood pulp markets, logging contractors cannot ensure that they have a home for all low-value wood to allow higher value stems to grow, Kimball said.

“Add to all of this, the nosedive of new housing starts and the impact of the coronavirus and we could be in for a real disaster,” she said.

The only feasible option at this time for the softwood pulp is to chip it into biomass, but that isn’t sustainable and is not the highest and best use for the landowner, she said.

“I think I can speak for many loggers in this state that we are always nervous about the future but one of my favorite quotes is from Janis Joplin: ‘You can destroy your now by worrying about tomorrow.’ We feel confident that logging will always have a place in our state as it provides a critical renewable resource. Loggers, by nature are extremely resourceful,” Kimball said.

Their business models are fluid.

“They have to be constantly changing and evolving in order to respond to the market,” she said. “We are also planners. Most loggers come from families of loggers and generations before us have taught us that there will be good times and there will be very bad times and you must use your good times to prepare for the bad. It’s been pretty bad for a while now and we haven’t given up yet, so I don’t see this being our demise.”

The most devastating part of this is there was no planning for this, it happened overnight, Dana Doran, executive director of Professional Logging Contractors of Maine in Augusta, said Thursday.

“The Jay facility purchases between 1 million and 1.5 million tons of softwood and hardwood commodities (logs, chips and biomass) each year to manufacture their products and keep the mill operating,” he said. “This equates to 30,000 to 45,000 truckloads of fiber annually or 150 to 175 trucks (a) day that will not make their way to Jay.”

According to a February 2019 study conducted by the University of Southern Maine, an average of one job in the logging industry is supported by the harvesting/trucking of 3,925 tons of wood, inclusive of sawlogs, pulpwood, and biomass, Doran said.

“As a result of the closure of the pulp mill in Jay, in addition to the 500 (estimated) jobs at the mill, there are also between 254 to 382 logging/trucking jobs that will be impacted/eliminated directly as a result of any prolonged or permanent closure,” he said in an email.

“Right now we don’t have a viable market for pulpwood,” Matt Smith, 50, of Farmington said. He works with his father, Lloyd Smith, of Farmington.

The Androscoggin Mill was their sole contract.

“A lot of people are in the same boat,” Matt Smith said. “There will be a lot of pressure on other mills to still use the same amount of resources that we can produce. In particular for my dad. It was going to be his last year. He is 75.”

Depending on how long the mill is not taking round wood, it is hard for people like his father at retirement age to establish other contracts, he said.

“I am the sole provider for my family,” Smith said. “With having taken the winter off for some shoulder surgery and this is going to be a long rehabilitation, I really don’t know what I am going to do this summer,” he said.

Normally, they take three to four loads of pulp to the mill a week.

“There are a lot of people in our same situation and we will feel the effects throughout Franklin County,” Smith said.

“At this time, it is presumed that the wood consumed at Jay will simply be transitioned to one of Maine’s other pulp and paper facilities and the supply chain will be able to survive this crash,” Doran said.  “However, that is not the reality of the situation. All of the pulp and paper facilities in Maine have already procured about 50% of the wood they will use in 2020 from the recent winter operations. As a result, those mills are prepared to operate from surplus inventory from now until July.”

Without the ability to use the wood it has already purchased in its own operations, Pixelle may need to sell its inventory to other mills in the state; which could equate to as much as 750,000 tons of already harvested wood fiber becoming available for purchase and flooding the market, according to Doran.

If this wood is sold, it will effectively provide another three to six months of inventory for other mills.  This could have a devastating ripple effect which could limit all harvesting in the state until late 2020, he said.

“If pulp mills do not need wood, and if in addition mills purchasing sawlogs do not have markets for their products because of the economic effects of the coronavirus as well as a lack of pulp market for their residuals, you can quickly see the enormous impact this would have on the logging and trucking industry in the entire state of Maine,” Doran said.

One professional logging contractor called him last week and said that before April 15, his company delivered 25 loads of sawlogs to the Ashland area every day and back-hauled 25 loads of pulp for the Jay mill. At 7:30 p.m. on April 15, this activity was halted, Doran said the contractor told him.

“This is a message that we have been hearing across the state from Fort Kent to Kittery and Rumford to Calais in the last five days. These are severe losses for businesses already struggling, and they are happening everywhere,” Doran said.

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