“I’m thinking about all the families affected,” said Perry Mayor Shirlie Hampton. “It’s just a sad situation.”
Georgia-Pacific announced Monday it will close its paper plant in Perry, Florida.
The American pulp and paper company said their decision to close the Foley Cellulose mill has nothing to do with Hurricane Idalia, which recently slammed into the Gulf Coast as a Category 3 and hit Perry, devastating the area with downed trees, power outages and wind damage.
“Taylor County is strong. This is a hard hit, but like the hurricane, we survived it, and I think we’ll survive this too. I just think we’re going to have to adapt,” said Dawn Perez, president of the Perry Taylor County Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m thinking about all the families affected,” added Perry Mayor Shirlie Hampton. “It’s just a sad situation.”
Approximately 525 people will lose their jobs, according to the press release.
The town, the county seat of Taylor County, has a population of 7,000. More than a quarter of the town’s economy is tied to the plant, which has long been criticized for causing environmental harm.
More: Perry after Idalia: Florida’s ‘Tree Capital of the South’ becomes a ‘tarp village’
“Various factors influenced this difficult decision,” the company press release states. “Ultimately, GP does not believe that the mill can competitively serve its customers in the long term despite the significant investments and commitment by GP Cellulose since the site was acquired in 2013.”
Another 1,200 contractors, like loggers, also depend on the mill for employment, said Perry City Manager John Hart. Hart worked at the mill for eight years before working for the city, and calls the mill the “lifeblood” of Perry and Taylor County.
Perez said since she heard the news this morning, she’s been scrambling, even thinking of ways to try to prevent the mill from shutting down.
“I wish I could go out and find a buyer. ‘Mill for sale, mill for sale,” she said.
U.S. Rep Congressman Neal Dunn called the news “extremely disappointing” and blasted the company in a prepared statement.
“This closure impacts thousands of my constituents following a devastating hurricane, a time when communities need reliability and stability the most,” said Dunn. “What’s even more concerning is that Georgia-Pacific neglected to give local leaders ample notice so we can support Taylor County through this difficult time. They ought to be ashamed.”
The Foley mill was first built by Proctor & Gamble in the 1950s and is a major producer of specialty fibers from predominantly slash pine, according to Georgia-Pacific’s website. The company acquired the the mill in 2013.
Environmentalists have blamed the mill for decades of pollution in the Fenholloway River, which stretches 36 miles and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
Before the mill was built, the Florida Legislature declared it in the state’s interest to designate the river as an industrial river and allow the discharge of industrial and chemical waste and effluent into its water. When Proctor & Gamble built the paper mill in 1954, it began dumping up to 50 million gallons of waste into the Fenholloway daily.
The river was considered one of the most polluted waterways in Florida. Nutrients in the waste spurred algae blooms that dissolved oxygen in the water and wiped out much of the river’s fish population. Also in the waste were cancer-causing agents called dioxins, a by-product of the use of chlorine to bleach the pulp harvested from trees and used in thousands of products.
When Georgia-Pacific acquired the plant, it eliminated the use of elemental chlorine and replaced washing and screening facilities, according to company officials. It has invested more than $300 million in environmental restoration since 2013.
Hart said employees he’s spoken to say the mill plans to close Nov. 1. The news is devastating, he said.
“Those employees are eating at restaurants, grocery shopping and paying taxes in Perry,” he said. “It’s going to trickle down to the whole community.”
Ana Goñi-Lessan is the State Watchdog Reporter for USA TODAY – Florida and can be reached at AGoniLessan@tallahassee.com. Follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan. James Call contributed to this story. Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @CallTallahassee