Kimberly-Clark Corp. announced Thursday that it may shut down its tissue mill and its pulp mill on the Everett waterfront early in 2012 if a buyer isn't found.
"It's part of the community's heart and soul," Everett historian David Dilgard said of the K-C stacks, which issue steam these days, not smoke. "It comes from the days when people were proud to have a job that made your hands dirty ... where you could make a living."
Earlier this year, the corporation announced that the Everett mills were for sale, saying it was difficult to make money in the pulp business. It said it was hoping for a quick sale, but a buyer hasn't been secured.
"At this time, while we continue to pursue a possible sale agreement for the Everett mill, we must also plan for the absence of this outcome," said Bob Brand, company spokesman. "Earlier today, we shared with our employees that we will begin preparations for scale-down and closure of the Everett mill."
Brad Wolf of Marysville, who's worked for Kimberly-Clark for 10 years, said the news was chilling.
"The future of the plant is still in process, that's according to the company's official statement," he said, as he left the plant for the day. "But if it goes down, we can't call Everett the mill town anymore ... For me, this job is everything. If Kimberly-Clark goes out of business (in Everett), there could be some severance, but I will be jobless and at risk for being homeless."
Josh Estes, of Local 183 of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Union, said the company continues to talk with multiple buyers but that no agreement is in the works.
He said it plans to scale down operations by the end of the year, likely operate with a skeleton crew after that and shut the plants down by March 31.
"The best case is that we'll have work into 2012, but it's likely to end at the end of the year," he said.
He said employees are devastated by the news.
"We have generations of people employed here," he said. "They're pretty concerned about their future. These are family-wage jobs, and the employees are heavily vested in this community. It's going to be a terrible thing to lose."
Richard Means, 29, of Arlington, has worked for the company for five years. He has a 2-year-old son and a baby on the way. He makes about $24 an hour.
"I can scale back if I need to, but a lot of people are not in that situation," he said. "I am very worried about some of my co-workers. It's emotional, too. My grandfather got a job here right after World War II. He retired from this plant."
Brand said the company told workers today to give them as much notice as possible and "to ensure ample time to work in good faith with local mill management and union representatives to make necessary preparations for closure."
He said that while the company is preparing for a shutdown, "we will continue to pursue a sale agreement with prospective buyers."
In January, officials said they were confident of a sale based on initial inquiries, but that hasn't happened.
Estes said he wants to ensure that workers remain productive and safe and that he helps secure the best severance package for employees that he can.
"We'll be encouraging people to take a minute for themselves and to focus on what they're doing," Estes said.
Troy McClelland, CEO of Economic Alliance Snohomish County, said he remains optimistic a buyer will be found.
"These are very valued manufacturing jobs and very skilled workers," he said. "It's important that we do everything we can to support Kimberly-Clark and to support the families right now."
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., called the announcement "difficult news, but not the final word. I am committed to doing what I can to protect these jobs," he said.
Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said he, too, was "hopeful that a buyer can be found."
Estes noted that hearing people suggest that it would be nice to see Kimberly-Clark leave so that their waterfront property can be developed is hurtful to some workers.
"If a buyer is secured, it would be nice if people stepped up and said we value people's livelihood," he said.
Greg Pallesen of the pulp and paper workers national union said he hopes there will be a sale but said it's unlikely.
He said the nation's free trade agreement has made pulp so cheap in countries that don't have the same environmental laws as the U.S. that most international corporations like Kimberly-Clark are investing overseas.
"We're destroying ourselves with these free trade agreements," he said. "They can make more money elsewhere, and that's what they're doing. Our jobs are moving overseas and it's a crying shame."
The Everett mills produce toilet tissue distributed on the West Coast and have been a major employer for Snohomish County for decades.
Built on Everett's waterfront in 1931 as Puget Sound Pulp and Timber Co., the mill helped build the city's reputation as a prime pulp producing center. It became Soundview Pulp Co. in 1935 and was purchased by Scott Paper in 1951. Scott merged with Kimberly-Clark in 1985.
Since the merger, the company has invested about $300 million in the Everett operation, installing major wastewater treatment systems, adding a new effluent outfall and switching its pulp-making system from one based on chlorine to chlorine dioxide, which is considered more environmentally friendly.
It also teamed with the Snohomish County Public Utility District to operate a cogeneration facility that burned waste wood to create electricity. The company recently terminated its operating agreement with the PUD to make buyers more interested in the site, Brand said.
He said the agreement required the company to operate the facility at a rate that was unsustainable.