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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ponderay Newsprint mill closure involves 148 permanent layoffs, state says

The Box Canyon Dam on the Pend Oreille River is seen from a passenger train near Ione, on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. The dam generates electricity for the Pend Oreille Public Utility District, which is losing its largest customer, the Ponderay Newsprint Co. paper mill in Usk.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington’s Employment Security Department on Tuesday confirmed the Ponderay Newsprint Co. paper mill in Usk is permanently shutting down and laying off 148 workers.

The department said it received notice of the plant’s closure from Ponderay Newsprint last week, and the layoffs started Thursday.

“Staff from the local rapid response team and WorkSource center will perform outreach to employees of the organization to ease the transition,” the department said in a statement.

The Pend Oreille Public Utility District previously said the mill – which until recently used about 70% of the utility’s electricity – had begun a period of “indefinite idling” after a two-week pause of operations.

The mill, which opened in late 1989, has supplied newsprint for publications in the Midwest, along the West Coast, and in Asia and South America. The plant is jointly owned by Lake Superior Forest Products, a subsidiary of Quebec-based Resolute Forest Products, and five major U.S. publishers, according to its website.

Ponderay Newsprint managers have not commented publicly on the closure. An employee on Tuesday referred questions to Spokane attorney John Munding, who did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Local officials have anticipated the closure of the mill for years, and concerns have intensified as demand for newsprint has fallen with rapidly declining newspaper circulation.

Ponderay Newsprint and the public utility district reached a legal settlement in 2018 after the utility alleged the company had breached a power-purchasing contract that runs through June 2027.

Pend Oreille County residents are likely to see at least some increase in electricity rates due to the closure, but the utility says it is working to cushion the blow and searching for other buyers to replace Ponderay Newsprint. The utility generates electricity at its Box Canyon Dam on the Pend Oreille River.

The mill closure deals a major blow to the economy of rural northeast Washington.

Pend Oreille County was grappling with high unemployment before the COVID-19 pandemic, and recent efforts to attract other industrial employers have generated widespread opposition.

In January, after months of limited communication, PacWest Silicon confirmed it was indefinitely halting plans for a smelter that had angered county residents and the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, who viewed the project as an environmental hazard.

The Spokesman-Review is published on newsprint from the Inland Empire Paper Co. in Millwood. The newspaper and the paper company are subsidiaries of the Cowles Co.