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Paper Chase 

Polluter or provider? How the Ticonderoga mill is coming between New York and Vermont

For many Vermonters, International Paper's Ticonderoga mill is too close for comfort. The plant's towering stacks, looming across Lake Champlain, continuously belch clouds of steam visible for 40 miles between Ferrisburgh and Benson. Of more concern are the millions of pounds of hazardous air pollutants that the paper plant emits every year.

But apart from the industrial view - and the plant's environmental toll - the mill represents an economic and political reality that contrasts sharply with picture-postcard Vermont life. Lake Champlain might as well be the Atlantic Ocean for the differences it demarcates.

To many residents of Ticonderoga and vicinity, Addison and Chittenden counties beckon as weekend destinations for shopping and entertainment. But Middlebury and Burlington, both a long way up the economic scale from Ticonderoga, are also seen as snobby and ultra-liberal, according to Debra Malaney, director of the Ti area's Chamber of Commerce.

Paradoxically, Vermont is simultaneously viewed as "reactionary," says Ticonderoga Town Supervisor Bob Dedrick. He means that many Ti-area residents accuse Vermonters of taking knee-jerk positions on environmental issues without examining the facts.

New Yorkers living near the Ticonderoga mill also wish that Vermonters would stop butting in on the Empire State's affairs, adds Dedrick, a Republican whose post is the equivalent of mayor. "Vermont is always questioning what New York does," he says, "but it's never the other way around."

Ticonderogan resentment was inflamed last October when the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) organized a protest march across the Champlain Bridge. The demonstration against IP's proposal to test-burn tire chips at the mill was seen by some New Yorkers as an attempt by well-off Vermont radicals to block a move that could help preserve manufacturing jobs in a community that badly needs them.

The local daily newspaper, the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, used terms identical to Dedrick's in attacking Vermont opponents of International Paper's proposed experiment with tire-derived fuel. "Vermont sounds reactionary, which is not altogether atypical of the state," the Press-Republican editorialized in October. "For years, it complained about IP's discharge into Lake Champlain while, itself, discharging unacceptable pollutants."

That's a widely held view on the New York side. Vermonters are hypocrites, it's said, because they're quick to accuse IP of dirty deeds while romanticizing dairy farmers whose toxic runoff goes streaming into Lake Champlain.

*****

Vermonters may be familiar with Fort Ticonderoga and its liberation in 1775 by Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys. But in most respects, Ti is regarded as terra incognita. On this side of the lake, there's little understanding of the mill's life-or-death importance to the town it so deeply defines.

"It's one of the last healthy manufacturing plants still standing in this part of the country," says mill manager Chris Mallon.

It's also a regional indicator of whether the national economy will continue trending toward deindustrialization. The Ticonderoga mill could soon be swept away in the accelerating flight of American factory jobs to the developing world.

International Paper currently employs 700 people in the Ticonderoga factory, 565 of whom are union members earning $20 an hour. The $40 million IP payroll forms a big chunk of the economy in Essex County, N.Y., which has no other employer of such size. Several small towns in the Adirondack Park also depend heavily on IP's contracts with some 270 independent loggers, who supply the mill with most of the wood it transforms into paper. International Paper also owns sizable swaths of upstate New York, where it is the largest private landowner by far.

Generations of local families have worked in the mill since it opened in 1882 on the banks of the LaChute River in downtown Ticonderoga. And some current workers were on the job in 1970 when IP moved its Ti operation a few miles east to a site on the shore of Lake Champlain, where it stands today.

The paper mill is in the blood and the bones of this working-class community. Its closure would be "devastating, disastrous," says Town Supervisor Dedrick. "There's not a family in Ti that's not affected by IP." His own father and brother worked in the mill, as Dedrick did until he became a science teacher at the local elementary school.

While loss of the mill might be unbearable, it's far from unthinkable. In fact, some employees and residents believe it's a matter of when, rather than whether, the Ti plant will be shut down.

Two years ago, IP closed its mill in Corinth, N.Y., about 50 miles to the south, leaving almost 300 people without work. The company has shut a number of other U.S. facilities in recent years, including one in Pennsylvania that Chris Mallon managed before being transferred to Ticonderoga. IP also shaved its workforce by 10 percent in 1998 - a move that cost the Ti plant 168 jobs. And last September the company announced plans to eliminate another 3000 jobs, including some non-union positions in Ticonderoga.

At the same time, IP remains the world's largest paper company, with more than 100,000 workers employed at its operations in 50 countries. International Paper has opened production facilities in China and Russia in recent years, a move some workers in Ticonderoga view as an ominous development.

IP has actually grown bigger since the late 1990s when it bought two of its major competitors - Champion Paper and Union Camp. Profit margins are shrinking, however, due in part to economic conditions that have weakened demand for paper even as energy and wood costs have risen. The Connecticut-based company has responded with a determined effort to cut operating costs, with the aim of boosting profits by $1.5 billion by next year.

The plan to burn tire-derived fuel to help power the Ti mill is part of that cost-savings initiative. In addition, International Paper claims its plant has been overassessed and is suing to reduce its property tax payments to the Town of Ticonderoga from a current annual sum of $800,000 to $255,000. That would result in a big hit on the town's $5.5 million budget. "It's not something we can afford to have happen," says Dedrick.

*****

The mill was a good place to work up until the mid-1980s, says David Ferguson. He got a job there in 1966 after a four-year hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps and has worked at the plant ever since, raising five children on the wages he earned as a maintenance man. Ferguson was himself raised on the pay that his father collected during a 32-year stint at IP.

Conditions changed about 20 years ago when IP started cutting benefits and the number of jobs at the mill began dwindling, Ferguson recalls. The plant's union - the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE) - wasn't able to halt the giveback trend, Ferguson explains, because its ultimate weapon had been effectively taken away. Early in the '80s, the Reagan administration defeated a strike by air-traffic controllers and, in the process, cleared the way for private employers to hire replacements for striking workers.

"I still have a positive impression of IP," adds Ferguson. He also continues to value the union. He serves as president of PACE Local 5, which represents 320 workers at the mill, because, he says, "I'm concerned about the young people coming out of high school who aren't qualified for college or who can't afford college. It's important for them that these jobs remain available."

Tom Mullen, who has worked at the mill for 37 years, thinks that factories like IP's have to be kept open in the interests of fairness and common sense. "There's got to be a balance," Mullen says. "We can't just take all our manufacturing jobs and send them to other countries. We're not only losing good-paying jobs; we're sending poor countries the pollution that we're not allowed to produce here."

Over the past decade, International Paper has spent $75 million on local infrastructure improvements in response to federal and state environmental mandates. That investment has increased IP's costs of doing business in Ticonderoga, but has brought about a major reduction in air and water pollution.

In comparison to 1990, says IP environmental engineer Larry Phillips, the mill now generates 74 percent fewer particulates, 68 percent less sulfur dioxide, and 36 percent fewer nitrogen oxides. Each of these types of air pollutants poses significant threats to human health. And to reduce the amount of toxic wastes it pumps into Lake Champlain, IP has built a tertiary water-treatment facility as well as a manmade wetlands where some of the wastewater undergoes initial purification. Until about 15 years ago, the mill repeatedly violated clean-water standards through accidental spills into Lake Champlain, but such incidences appear to have come to an end.

"I challenge anyone to identify a facility that has spent this amount of capital and achieved these kinds of results," says the pony-tailed Phillips. "IP's commitment to the environment involves more than words."

The mill now generates only about half the quantity of pollutants considered acceptable by federal and state regulators, Phillips says. And Vermont officials say they have no evidence of any negative health effects associated with the Ticonderoga mill.

Mullen also defends the company's environmental performance. "IP is tough to deal with, and there's lots of ways to bash them," he says, "but the environment isn't one of them." Mullen recalls that when he worked at the mill's downtown site in the late 1960s, "You could tell what color of paper they were running because of the color of the river."

Vermont activists acknowledge that IP has made improvements. But they note that the mill still discharges huge quantities of pollutants into the air of the Champlain Valley. In 2002, according to IP's own estimates, the Ti plant released 386,000 pounds of particulates, along with 1.5 million pounds of nitrogen oxides and 2.4 million pounds of sulfur dioxide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency measured 260,000 pounds of other airborne contaminants from the mill, including methanol, ammonia and acetaldehyde. Scientists have not determined the human health effects of inhaling small amounts of those chemicals.

"International Paper has been the number-one polluter of the Champlain Basin for many years," says Ben Davis of VPIRG. "That hasn't changed." But he adds that green-minded Vermonters should also aim their ire at Burlington's McNeill Generating Plant, which discharges some similar stuff. Davis also suggests that Vermont politicians are guilty of opportunism when they ring alarms over IP's proposed tire burning, but say nothing about current and potential environmental threats posed by IBM, Vermont's largest private employer.

*****

The Ti mill workers inhabit a work world quite unlike that of most Vermonters. Visitors are equipped with hard hats, protective goggles, earplugs and orange safety vests.

A tour of the paper plant starts with a safety-procedures video that explains how to respond to emergencies, including gas leaks.

IP's officials are quick to point out that no serious accidents have occurred in the mill for the past several years. It's an impressive record, considering the size and power of the machines that provide the plant with energy to produce 690,000 tons of paper a year, including the top-of-the-line Hammermill brand for customers such as American Express, Staples and Kinko's. The plant also turns out Accent Opaque paper for printing companies throughout the Northeast. The first Harry Potter book published in the United States was printed on paper made in the Ti mill.

Turning logs into pulp and then into paper is a noisy, smelly and technically demanding process. Furthermore, the expectations of American consumers cause the Ti mill to employ some production methods and materials not used in most European paper plants, according to Donna Wandsworth, communications director at the Ticonderoga facility. "Perfect white paper is an American phenomenon," Wandsworth says. "European mills are content to make a less-white, less-perfect paper. Americans want the print on their paper to really snap out at them."

At the Ti mill, logs hauled from the Adirondacks and Vermont are debarked and chipped. The bark is burned in the plant's furnaces along with fuel oil - and, perhaps one day, tire chips - to produce the energy that powers the pulping and paper-making machines. Inside a six-and-a-half-story digester, chips are mixed with chemicals to produce fiber that is then turned into paper.

Visitors to the mill may emerge feeling as though they've gone back in history. The enormous facility, with some sections the size of airplane hangars, recalls a time when the United States actually manufactured many of the consumer goods emblematic of its affluence.

There's a cultural contrast, too. Mark Floegel, a Burlington resident who worked as a pulp and paper-mill campaigner for Greenpeace, points to "class differences" on the two sides of the lake, with Addison County being made up largely of farmers, white-collar professionals and merchants who have little in common with the factory workers of Ticonderoga. He says he has "lots of sympathy" for industrial workers like those at the Ti plant.

*****

At lunch time on a Monday, downtown Ti makes Vergennes look like mid-town Manhattan. The business district has a forlorn appearance, with some storefronts either altogether vacant or inexplicably closed to customers. "The downtown is in sad shape," concedes Susan Rathbun, co-owner of a jewelry store that bears her name.

Rathbun says Ti was booming in 1940 when her husband's family opened the store at the same location it occupies today. Merchants continued to prosper, apart from cyclical downturns, until International Paper moved the mill out of downtown in 1970, she says. It was a blow from which Ti has yet to recover.

Some 1400 workers at the LaChute River site - now a park and museum - used to do much of their shopping downtown, but now many members of the 50 percent smaller IP workforce have little reason to drive through the center of Ticonderoga. There's nothing downtown to compete with the Grand Union, Ames and Wal-Mart that have sprung up on the outskirts of town.

Rathbun says, however, that her jewelry store did pretty well in 2003. It draws customers from the second homes, some of which sell for a million dollars or more, that have sprouted all around nearby Lake George. Tourism now ranks as the second-most important industry in Essex County - right behind paper production.

Ticonderoga has had to struggle to overcome "the stigma of being a mill town, a poor upstate community," says Debra Malaney at the local chamber of commerce. She finds hope in the town's younger-than-usual board of supervisors, who are planning to attract visitors and shoppers to the area. All five members are Republicans - a reflection of the 2-1 GOP-Democratic ratio that prevails among local voters.

The town is striving to become "a warm, clean community, family-oriented, with quaint shops, small industries and green businesses," Malaney explains. In other words, Ti would like to resemble many Vermont towns. It might have to achieve that transformation without the economic muscle, charitable grants and volunteer work the mill and its employees provide.

"I don't think it'll be here in five years," says Steve Mydlarz, a father of four who has worked at the plant since 1994. Mydlarz's father worked for many years at a mine in upstate New York that eventually closed. "It's the same story," Mydlarz says of the Ti mill. "Cut, cut, cut till they can't cut no more, and then they close the door."

Others aren't as pessimistic about the mill's future. "I think IP is committed to staying in Ticonderoga," says Jody Olcott, co-director of the Essex County Industrial Development Agency. "They might have to reduce employment in order to make a profit, though. We understand that."

Some mill workers point to IP's recent $30 million rebuilding of one of its gigantic paper-making machines as a positive sign. The company is considering a similar rebuild of a second machine, and if that happens, "I think we'll be around for quite a while to come," says union leader Ferguson.

International Paper has some compelling economic reasons to keep the Ticonderoga plant functioning. It enjoys easy access to virtually unlimited supplies of wood and water - two essential elements in the paper-making process - and it's close to an interstate highway that allows timely deliveries to most major customers. The Ti mill also boasts a proud, well-trained and dedicated workforce, says manager Mallon.

"Our strong safety record doesn't happen without everyone being engaged," he says. "We've got an absolutely top-notch workforce here. We're confident in our ability to be competitive as we move ahead."

The Ti plant is in the mid-size range among the 26 paper mills IP operates in the United States. But its technology is old, resulting in economics of scale that "are somewhat disadvantageous compared to the newer mills," Mallon adds. "Some of them can make five or six times as much tonnage as we can with the same number of people."

Even as a relative newcomer to the Ticonderoga area, Mallon understands how much is at stake. "Of course I'm aware of the rich history this mill has," he says. "Any decision that would negatively affect the community would be taken with a great deal of consideration."

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Bio:
Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.

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