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Town Divided Over Bitter Strike, Poisonous Gas Leaks

February 20, 1988

JAY, Maine (AP) _ A bitter eight-month strike by 1,250 workers against the paper mill that is Jay’s economic lifeblood has spread picket line violence into the streets, and poison gas leaks from the plant have raised fears about the town’s safety.

″We have had houses spray-painted, guns fired through windows, car windows broken out,″ said resident Virginia Moulton, 50. ″We have had sheds burned, nails in our driveways.

″Everybody’s had enough.″

The strike at International Paper Co., the nation’s largest paper company, began June 16 when members of the United International Paperworkers Union and the Brotherhood of Firemen and Oilers, who made upwards of $35,000 a year, walked out in a contract dispute.

IP wanted to eliminate 170 jobs, cut premium pay on Sundays and holidays and institute more flexible work rules. Company officials said the concessions were necessary to compete in international markets; the unions noted that IP profits were up last year.

The company has hired what it considers permanent replacements, many of whom live here and in surrounding communities and are neighbors and relatives of the strikers, creating deep resentment among the town’s 5,000 residents.

In recent weeks, townspeople have grown increasingly angry at the mill and its new workers, whom they blame for three incidents involving hazardous gas in nearly three weeks. One, a 112,000-gallon chlorine dioxide leak on Feb. 5, forced nearly 4,000 residents to flee their homes and schools for several hours.

″It’s no longer a management-labor dispute. This is a health issue,″ said Pat Pineau, who picketed the mill after a Feb. 14 chlorine gas leak with others carrying signs saying ″Save our Children″ and ″People Against Poison.″

Pineau, a mother of four, and other concerned mothers gathered signatures to urge Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. to close the plant until experts inspect it and pronounce it safe.

″The company has given us nothing but whitewash and propaganda. After the latest leak, nobody feels they’re being honest,″ Pineau, who has a brother and uncle out on strike, said during an interview last week.

Eight workers were sent to the hospital after being exposed to hydrogen sulfide on Jan. 28, and the Feb. 14 leak left seven injured, none seriously. Two people were treated and released at a local hospital in the Feb. 5 leak.

McKernan refused to order the mill closed, but he and IP Chairman John A. Georges agreed to launch a full-scale inspection of the plant by an outside consultant to be selected by the state and paid by IP. State environmental officials and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators were at the mill all week.

IP officials maintain that the 400-acre plant is safe and characterize one leak as a mechanical failure and the other as an accident. The incident involving hydrogen sulfide exposure is still being investigated.

IP Human Resources Manager Keith C. LaVoie, whose sister is one of the striking workers, said strikers constantly monitor mill operations and are quick to publicize even minor problems.

″They’re trying to find a way to shut this mill down. They think if they shut it down along enough, they’ll get their jobs back,″ he said.

Union leaders have repeatedly called for a plant shutdown, saying inexperienced workers were threatening the town’s safety.

But LaVoie said the replacement workers, who make up 75 percent of the overall mill work force, have been properly trained and are not responsible for the accidents. They are producing quality paper at 90 percent of the mill’s pre-strike capacity, he said.

Meanwhile, members of the Firemen and Oilers, undaunted by the frigid winter, stand outside the mill gates 24 hours a day. Harassment against workers entering the mill continues and vandalism runs rampant as animosity worsens.

Police Chief Erland Farrington said his department has spent about $200,000 beyond its normal budget because of the extra police protection needed since the strike began.

For nearly a century, generations of families have worked at IP mills in the area or supplied them with wood from forests in the surrounding western Maine hills. Few residents can claim no connection to the plant.

The mill paid $4.8 million last year in taxes, 80 percent of the town’s tax base.

Townspeople say the strike has brought out the worst in their neighbors, causing strife for all residents and turning upside down the orderly process of town government.

″We don’t have control over our town meetings anymore,″ Moulton said during an interview at her home. She said strikers dominate meetings with tirades against the mill. It’s ″almost as if we’re living in a war zone.″

″The town is on the brink. We’ve got blood on the floor and we want to know when you’re going to do something about it,″ Town Manager Charles Noonan told state legislators during a recent hearing on a bill that extended unemployment benefits for the strikers.

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