Reality sets in at closing Natchez mill

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 30, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; For the last few days, as production winded down to a halt, reality began to set in at International Paper’s Natchez mill.

But Friday was when it came to a head for mill Manager Steve Olsen.

&uot;It’s quiet,&uot; Olsen said, making his way down to the conference room on the third floor of the mill’s administrative building. &uot;There are only three employees left on this floor.&uot;

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There are other signs, as well: the handshake he shares with an employee headed toward retirement, bare spots on the wall where employees have been allowed to take photos as souvenirs of their time there.

Photos from a time &045; specifically, the 1950s &045; when the mill was brand-new and booming, the products it made in high demand.

&uot;See here?&uot; said Olsen, pointing to a glass case filled with samples of products in which the mill’s product, chemical cellulose, has played a part over the years.

Those range from cellophane packaging to acetate to cigarette filters. Acetate, he pointed out, has been overtaken by such competitors as polyester since the mill opened in 1950.

And cigarettes? &uot;You know what happened there,&uot; Olsen said.

So in January, the company announced it would close its chemical cellulose division, which is only housed at the Natchez mill, due to a poor market for the product.

Not that efforts haven’t been made to keep the plant open in one form or another, Olsen pointed out.

IP announced in June 2000 that it was looking for a buyer for the mill, then announced in October 2001 that it would lay off 142 of 728 employees.

A buyer was not found and, in February 2002, it took the mill off the market, saying it would instead look for ways to tighten up operations and find potential markets.

IP will continue to consider serious offers to buy the mill or find an alternative use of the site, Olsen said.

However, Olsen has said in recent months that an influx of cheap imported forest products; recessions in Asia, Europe and the United States and obsolete equipment at the mill; and fierce competition have made it difficult for the mill to compete.

&uot;It’s not the mill&uot; or its workers that are to blame for the shutdown, but a combination of the above factors, Olsen emphasized.

Instead, the 430 or so employees who worked at the mill as of this week &045; for 50, it was the last day &045; continued to make a high-quality product until production and testing stopped Friday.

On Monday, the woodyard closest to the mill was shut down, with trucks starting to take remaining wood away. Tuesday, the pulp machine was shut down.

Thursday, boilers were shut down and steam no longer rose from the plant’s landmark smokestacks.

And on Friday, the pulp was tested for a final time for shipment.

The cellulose that was made this week will be shipped next week; at the end of that week, 25 to 30 employees will be laid off.

&uot;Now, employees are cleaning and security the mill and inspecting equipment,&uot; Olsen said.

Landfill cleanup and waste operations, with ongoing direction from the Department of Environmental Quality, will probably continue for years.

What’s next for the mill itself?

Olsen said it will not be destroyed or dismantled until options for continuing all or part of the mill under different ownership, including employee ownership, are exhausted.

As far as progress on setting up an employee stock ownership plan, a type of employee ownership, is concerned, Olsen said he only knew that talks were continuing this week.

&uot;But I haven’t been in on all of those,&uot; he said.

What’s next for the employees themselves?

Some employees have already left. About 70 employees, half supervisors and half other workers, have transferred to other IP locations throughout the nation.

Some have taken jobs with companies that visited the plant during a number of job fairs held since the announcement.

&uot;Some went to work for the railroad companies, went offshore or plan to go into business for themselves,&uot; Olsen said.

&uot;A lot are going, or have already gone, back to school,&uot; many using federal funds available to displaced workers, he said.

Meanwhile, a cookout and a larger reception are planned for employees before most mill cleanup and equipment inspection is completed &045; and most employees released &045; on July 31.

Ex-employees are even stopping by to see their former co-workers and wish them good luck in the future.

Olsen said employees have kept their spirits up despite difficult circumstances.

&uot;Our employees continue to amaze me,&uot; he said. &uot;Our people are engaged and continue to have just a great attitude. They’re handling this with great character. I can’t say enough of how proud I am of them.

&uot;This is a diverse community that has embraced and helped one another.&uot;