OLD TOWN, Maine — During the deepest a part of final winter, a van pulled off the freeway and adopted the two-lane highway that skims alongside the Penobscot River, coming to relaxation beside the hulk of a shuttered pulp mill. The van’s door slid open and passengers climbed out: seven Buddhist monks from China.
Andrew Edwards, a mill superintendent from the close by city of Lincoln, led them to a room the place he had stockpiled the issues that they had requested for the ceremony: oranges, limes, apples and 7 shovels, one for every monk.
Snow lay deep on the bottom, 2 toes of gritty, frozen crust, and he remembers worrying slightly in regards to the guests. “They were in their, I don’t know what they’re called, their Tibetan outfit,” he mentioned. “With the sandals and whatnot.”
He stepped again and watched because the monks wandered from the boiler homes to the limekiln to the pulp mill, chanting, burning candles and gently tapping a gong.
Edwards had grown up beside a now-defunct mill, and seen the human chaos that resulted from failures and bankruptcies — the foreclosures, the layoffs, the departures of younger households.
So he had each purpose to be curious in regards to the new boss. Zhang Yin, recognized in China because the “Queen of Trash,” had constructed an empire, Nine Dragons Paper, by producing corrugated board out of recycling scrap. She was completely different from the American house owners who preceded her, and never solely as a result of she may afford to spend lavishly on feng shui.
The most startling factor about Zhang was her promise that Nine Dragons would function the mill for 100 years, lengthy sufficient to make use of Edwards’ kids and grandchildren.
“People don’t go back and redo these mills, they just don’t,” Edwards mentioned. “Mills get torn down or scrapped out. And here’s Old Town in the middle of it, coming back to life.”
The yr 2019 was, by any measure, a disastrous one for the relations between America and China.
President Donald Trump steered the United States right into a commerce conflict, bringing common tariffs on Chinese items to 21.Three p.c, up from 3.1 p.c when he got here into workplace. Americans’ opinions of China turned sharply detrimental, sliding to the bottom level because the Pew Research Center started recording them.
But a unique story was unfolding on this battered New England mill city, inhabitants 7,500. The Chinese authorities had reduce off the import of American recycling, jeopardizing the provision traces that fed Nine Dragons’ broader enterprise. To hold its paper vegetation buzzing, Nine Dragons wanted this mill.
And the Old Town mill, solid apart by a parade of short-term buyers, deserted to the weather, wanted a savior. No quantity of trade-war bluster would change both of this stuff.
Along with gratitude got here a tinge of apprehension, a way that unpredictable change had come to the north woods.
“You want my honest opinion? This country is being recolonized by Asia,” mentioned Katie Bosse, 77. She had grown up, as she put it, “under the stack,” the daughter and granddaughter of millworkers, and had a Mainer’s suspicion of outsiders.
“Most people who do this do it out of greed,” she mentioned. But she had noticed the positioning supervisor for Nine Dragons lingering in the back of the gang and wished to catch him. Because this was additionally true: Finally, after so a few years, there was alternative to be grasped in Old Town.
She dashed again to see if she may snag a job for her brother.
A struggling city
David Mahan, president of Old Town’s City Council, was in his truck, amassing empty bottles for his bottle redemption enterprise, when he heard there was a purchaser.
One proprietor after one other had given up on the 130-year-old pulp mill, which had contributed about $500,000 yearly to town’s tax income, mentioned Bill Mayo, Old Town’s metropolis supervisor. It shut its doorways for good in 2015.
The mill sat empty for 3 winters, and holes opened within the roof. Animals sought shelter there. Most folks on the town anticipated it to be offered for scrap.
The metropolis’s spirit flagged, because the crime blotter documented drug busts and methamphetamine labs. The City Council, struggling to fund providers from a dwindling tax base, agreed to chop 20 municipal jobs. Mahan had even talked about phasing out trash assortment, a service that prices town round $330,000 yearly.
“I think we hit rock bottom at a certain point,” Mahan mentioned.
Then got here a name in regards to the mill.
“You need to come back right now,” the liquidator instructed Mahan. Once he had parked and brought a seat in a convention room on the mill, he dialed right into a name with somebody he had by no means met: Brian Boland, vice chairman of presidency affairs at ND Paper, which already owned one pulp and paper mill in Rumford, 125 miles to the west.
Mahan was surprised.
“I’m going, ‘ND Paper, are you kidding me?’” he mentioned. “Then Brian says, ‘Yes, ND Paper, we’re affiliated with Nine Dragons.’ I went, ‘Whoa, OK.’ Once I heard that name, I was like, ‘OK. We’re in a very good place right now.’”
If demand for pulp had wavered within the United States, it was constructing in China. Nine Dragons is Asia’s largest producer of containerboard, which is used to make cardboard containers and packing materials. Its founder, Zhang, amassed her huge fortune by exporting recycling scrap from the United States, after which breaking it all the way down to pulp that might be made into containers.
That enterprise mannequin was shaken in 2018 when the Chinese authorities sharply restricted the import of American recycling scrap, in a coverage generally known as the “National Sword.” Paper producers started looking for new sources of virgin pulp, which could be exported beneath decrease tariffs and combined with lower-grade fibers from Chinese scrap to strengthen cardboard.
And that call had despatched ripples all the way in which to Old Town, the place Nine Dragons introduced an preliminary funding of $45 million.
Mahan watched because the mill grew to become a hive of exercise. Four hundred and fifty contractors started exhibiting up every day on the mill, and a pizza store opened on Main Street. When the corporate started interviewing candidates for 130 jobs, 1,200 folks utilized.
ND Paper, the corporate’s United States affiliate, appeared to bend over backward to win the goodwill of the group. It sponsored Little League groups, underwrote the Memorial Day and Riverfest parades, purchased canoes from the city’s different giant employer, Old Town Canoe, to present out as raffle prizes.
“We were short that money, but now, this year, it’s almost like being dropped from heaven,” Mahan mentioned.
A dazzling occasion
Anyone anxious that Nine Dragons was one other short-term proprietor discovered it reassuring to observe its funding in landscaping.
The firm had flown its feng shui marketing consultant, recognized inside the firm as “Feng Shui Eddie,” from Hong Kong to look over the mill advanced.
There had been issues. The mill property was abutted by a cemetery, a slope lined with gravestones of 19th-century millworkers. This was inauspicious, Feng Shui Eddie suggested, as a result of it allowed stressed spirits to look into the manufacturing facility grounds.
He ordered a excessive, 2,000-foot fence erected alongside the perimeter of the cemetery. Behind it, the mill employees planted a row of 230 saplings — peach timber, specifically chosen for his or her skill to resist a Maine winter.
“It was like belt and suspenders,” mentioned Craig Kerschner, the mill supervisor. “The peach trees are another added layer to keep them over there, to keep the spirits in their own space.”
He added, “It’s all about keeping them on their side.”
If these alterations prompted amused chatter on the town, the mill workers took them severely.
“It’s something they strongly believe in, and we support them 110%,” mentioned Randy Chicoine, ND Paper’s common supervisor for Maine operations. “Our folks are very understanding of it.”
At 2 p.m. on a sunny afternoon in August, Zhang — recognized reverently inside the firm as “Chairlady” — walked into the Old Town mill for its grand opening. She was small and twinkly, sporting a knitted Chanel-style go well with woven with gold thread and patent-leather sneakers with gold particulars; inside her collar was tucked a strand of marble-size gem stones.
She was adopted by a retinue of relations, lots of whom work for her. Zhang’s father, a army officer, was branded a “counterrevolutionary” and imprisoned in the course of the Cultural Revolution. They had been poor, and she or he needed to go to work at a younger age, to help her seven youthful siblings.
In 2006, the yr Nine Dragons went public, she was ranked the richest individual in China by the Hurun Report.
“My sister hates lazy people the most. She is always energetic and more diligent than any other person I know,” one among her sisters, Zhang Xiubo, instructed China’s state-run press company. “We obey her unconditionally.”
Inside the warehouse, the corporate had erected a white tent, fitted with ornamental lighting fixtures and buzzing air-conditioners. A row of Maine’s most distinguished politicians was seated on the dais, beside Zhang, and the primary rows of folding chairs had been occupied by dark-suited Chinese executives. On screens close to the stage, time-lapse drone footage sped by means of months of restoration work.
Zhang received to her toes, her face barely seen over the lectern. “In China, we have a common saying: ‘Separated as we are, thousands of miles apart, we come together by predestination,’” she mentioned in Mandarin, as her son translated. Mayo offered 5 keys to town — to Zhang, her husband, son, brother and nephew — and the politicians stood to have a good time the mill’s reopening.
“The paper industry in Maine is coming back,” Sen. Angus King introduced. “Why is this important to Maine? Because trees are what we’ve got.”
After that, millworkers received up, one after one other, to pay tribute to Zhang.
A mill shutdown “leaves an awful hole in you that doesn’t go away for quite some time,” mentioned Michelle Fisher, a logistics supervisor, who had lived by means of six.
Then she turned her face to Zhang, whom she known as “our Chairlady.”
“I don’t think we will ever be able to say thank you enough,” she mentioned. You may nearly odor the longing within the room: Please, let it work this time.
An fringe of distrust
Not everybody in Old Town was a part of the celebration.
The northern a part of Maine is Trump nation, rural and deeply scarred by the collapse of producing. Derek King, an actual property developer, was drawn to Trump due to his powerful line on China. He mentioned he had watched joint ventures type within the area and that they weren’t at all times honest, with Chinese buyers pressuring American companions to share know-how.
“I think they’re ripping us off, and I think they know it, and it bothers me,” King mentioned.
It didn’t sit effectively with King, the way in which Old Town’s leaders had been handing keys to town to a Chinese tycoon. But King owns a residential property straight throughout Route 2 from the mill, and, in its revival, he sees a marketplace for new housing items.
“I feel a little hypocritical at times for being excited that they’re here,” he mentioned. “At times I almost feel like the community, the state, is prostituting itself to get 130 good jobs in here.”
Duane Lugdon was not a part of the celebration, both. Now 65, he had served for 22 years because the union consultant on the Old Town mill, Local 80 of the United Steelworkers. With its acquisition by ND Paper, the mill grew to become — for the primary time in many years — a nonunion store.
It bothered Lugdon that the mill would now be loading a lot of its pulp — virgin pulp, produced from timber — onto cargo ships headed for China, to be fabricated amongst Nine Dragons’ eight mills there.
“The Chinese want these paper facilities for one reason,” Lugdon mentioned. “Remember, what they want is the fiber. They don’t have any. That’s the issue in China. They have to get their trees somewhere else.”
But he was cautious about what he mentioned as a result of he, too, desires it to work.
“It sat idle for three years because nobody wanted to commit the dollars,” he mentioned. “The fact that the Chinese have done it, that’s a wonderful thing. If you think of it from the perspective of being dead, it’s no longer dead.”
And with this, he mentioned, begins a brand new interval, of overseas possession. “It’s something we hadn’t seen in this country in 100 years, but we’re seeing it now,” he mentioned.
‘Squeezing the life out of it’
As the brand new yr started, the mill nonetheless bore a vibrant two-story banner that learn “Old Town, New Beginning.”
The mill restart had proved a wrestle, as the brand new house owners grappled with gear that suffered from years of neglect, mentioned Kerschner, the mill supervisor.
He sat in entrance of his window, as gusts of snow spiraled exterior in a bitterly chilly wind. The solar sank under the horizon at midafternoon, simply after 4:30 p.m.
“They were squeezing the life out of it before,” he mentioned.
The bold two-year aim declared on the grand opening — to transform the mill from hardwood to softwood, after which scale up pulp manufacturing from the mill’s former yield of 150,000 tons a yr to 270,000 — continues to be far off.
The mill continues to be ramping up, producing about 200 tons a day, Kerschner mentioned. He mentioned he hoped to deliver manufacturing as much as the pre-shutdown stage early this yr.
“We’re right on the verge now,” he mentioned. “Every day you can feel we’re right on the edge of what needs to occur.”
Old Town’s small industrial strip was desolate in the course of the holidays, its single widespread restaurant gutted by a fireplace. Many on the town had been watching the mill, to see if the brand new house owners could be scared off, like those who got here earlier than.
Dan Smart, 63, who logged 39 years on the mill after which returned for a couple of months to work safety, mentioned that, quite the opposite, the brand new house owners appeared to have limitless persistence. They assigned double crews, month after month, as technicians labored to deliver the boilers again into operation.
“In the past, if something wasn’t running in a hurry, someone was panicking,” he mentioned. “That money they have is a bottomless pit.”
He concluded, finally, that the panic will not be coming. “That threat seems to be gone with this outfit,” he mentioned. “They’re in it for the long haul.”
Cathy Cashman, now 64, had began there when she was 22. The mill’s historical past was her historical past.
She was there when a employee killed himself by leaping off the roof, and when a pair, who each labored there, married exterior the converter. At one level, she gave her co-workers directions for some eventual day, to scatter her ashes from the roof of the restoration boiler. The new house owners didn’t rent her again, and this made her bitter.
Still, as the brand new yr started, she fretted in regards to the restart in a manner that was nearly protecting. She made it some extent to depend the stacks, simply to see the place the steam was coming from, ticking them off one after the other. The restoration boiler, the limekiln, boiler No. 5, boiler No. 6, the digester room.
A few days in the past she noticed one thing she had not seen earlier than, steam popping out of the kraft mill. And it gave her a gust of hope.
“You want it to succeed,” she mentioned. “It might bring Old Town back to life.”