Inside the walls of the dying Norske Skog paper mill – and what happens now

In a dim warehouse room, a machine that was churning out 1000 metres of paper a minute just a week previously is still.

There is no water or pulp coming in. The conveyor belt has already been taken off.

Two rolls of paper are mere specks in the large, gaping space in the room next door, once home to another machine.

At around 3.40pm on Tuesday, the Tasman Norske Skog Mill just outside Kawerau began to shut down after rolling out the final newsprint of its 66 years.

Fifteen million tonnes of paper have been made in its time.

The closure has been a long time coming as demand for the mill’s sole product, newsprint, kept declining, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Elders from Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Awa – who had all previously worked at the Norske Skog mill – said a karakia for the machine.

Soon afterwards, the sombre clean-up began for the 160 staff. It will last until mid-July when staff begin to hang up their hard hats.

The remaining hats will be hung in August and when the mill has been sold.

It was a shocking day for Kawerau, a town built because of the mill.

Kawerau was born after a 1951 government and Fletcher group decision to form the Tasman Pulp & Paper Company Limited as a joint venture.

By October 1953 the first house was built and newsprint production began two years later.

The name Kawerau was chosen for the new town as the result of a competition.

Today, the only paper machine in the Norske Skog mill is nothing like it used to be.

Less than 24 hours after it shut, no pulp or water were being fed into one end, and no paper was coming out the other.

“It’s a lot quieter,” site manager Steve Brine says, standing in front of it, with the loud hum now a fraction of the noise it once produced when making 1000m reels of paper, 7m wide, a minute.

The machine belts were taken off soon after the final shutdown and the last of the mill’s jumbo newsprint rolls are held in the machine arms.

Brine started working at the mill as a 25-year-old when the site — which was later shared with Oji Fibre Solutions — employed 2000 people.

Looking around the now sleeping site, he remembers the 750 staff in the early 2000s slowly whittling down to the now 160 shift workers.

Closing up shop has been a long time coming – the first obvious sign in 2005 when PM1 – paper machine one – shut and 140 people lost their jobs.

Eight years later, PM2 went, along with another 120 jobs.

This was the hardest one for Brine, he says, as he was the line manager at the time and watched the machine taken apart and dumped over the course of a year.

The only clue it was once there is the gaping space of at least 100m beneath the high ceilings.

When this happened, Brine moved to PM3, the newest machine on site. He became the general manager four years ago.

He speaks with pride and sorrow as he walks around the mill less than 24 hours after PM3 was turned off for good.

The last of the paper rolls are ready to be picked up next week.

Now staff will continue their roster as normal, but their usual tasks have changed to focus on the clean-up.

This involves cleaning all the equipment and ensuring everything handed over is safe.

It was strange for Brine to walk in on Wednesday morning when his working life essentially changed overnight.

The daily thoughts of “How many tonnes of paper was produced? Did we fulfil our environmental duties? How did the mill run?” would no longer fill his mind.

“I’m still adjusting.”

As the man who oversaw the daily running of the site, the biggest thing for him was losing the family he has gained in his 25 years.

“The whole mill is one big family.”

Wendy Rowles is also part of the family, having worked there for 20 years as a business analyst.

“It’s a long time coming,” she says as she heads into the mill on the first cold day after the mill fell silent.

Contractor Gary Maxwell has been there the same amount of time and described the sombre atmosphere ahead of the looming shutdown.

“You know it’s coming, but it’s different when you see it actually start to happen.”

At around 3.40pm on Tuesday, the mill began to shut down after its final newsprint rolled out.

Speaking of the machine in its now sleeping state, Pulp and Paper Workers Union secretary Tane Phillips says it’s “very sad”.

“When you look at the machine, it’s not just about the machine, it’s about the people.”

After karakia, memories that spanned decades and generations were shared, with a lot of talk of those that have gone or passed away.

Those there for the final moments of operation were mostly current staff, with a gathering of current and former employees to mark the end of an era.

One man had been there 55 years, another 49 years; many had grandfathers, fathers and sons who had worked there.

Phillips worked at the mill for 27 years before he took on his role in the union, his father working there before him.

He worked on paper machines one and two and moved to his current role when number two shut, a much worse time than now to lose a job, he says.

“This is one of the best times to be unemployed in the last 30 years because there is a lot of work around, and the rates of pay-out are a lot better,” he says.

“Even though it’s a closure of the mill and it’s really sad, there’s more employment around than when we shut numbers one and two.”

Carter Holt Harvey’s sawmill, Oji’s pulp mill, and Asaleo Care toilet manufacturing are still within walking distance of Norske, and the Sequel lumber mill is down the road, he says.

“I think it’s good that we aren’t relying on one employer like we use to.

“If Tasman had shut 30 years ago it would’ve been devastating, but because there are different employment opportunities and different businesses in town, it’s not the same as it once was.”

Phillips spent the first 40 years of his life in Kawerau and says while just a few staff currently live in the town, most live within 40 minutes of the mill.

But he’s hopeful about the future of the town.

“I don’t think Kawerau will die, it’s changed a hell of a lot to what it was … It’s much more resilient.”

He says staff have been getting support through the budget and financial advisors, CV writing and job placement help, and at least six people have already secured a new job.

The Ministry of Social Development is also working with staff, providing jobseeker support packs as well as contacts for work brokers, Seek and TradeMe Jobs.

The ministry’s regional commissioner Mike Bryant says the ministry has been speaking with the mill’s HR about staff who want to upskill from Class 2 and Class 4 licences, offering them free courses.

He says they’ll keep working with anyone wanting help finding work in this time of uncertainty and stress.

The silver lining

Karl Gradon, the general manager of strategy for the Eastern Bay of Plenty Economic Development Agency, says there’s a “real opportunity” to take the town’s growth forward, in a new, more sustainable direction.

“The mill has been the best thing for us in terms of setting up an economy, it’s been the backbone of us for so long, but people recognised about 10 years ago that was going to change.”

Gradon grew up in Tauranga in the 70s and 80s and describes the Eastern Bay vibe as reminiscent of that time.

“The vibe is exactly like Tauranga when it was going through that absolute surge of growth … people were unsure if they liked the growth.”

Kawerau is “tired”, he says, but the lack of vibrancy is because the jobs are currently being made.

When Gradon set out on the programme management of the Provincial Growth Fund, the target was to create 7000 jobs by 2030 in the region and this is “absolutely on track”.

The Government has pumped more than $28 million of Provincial Growth Fund investment into 16 projects for the Kawerau area since 2018, with more than a third already paid.

A Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment spokeswoman says the funding unlocked potentially $43m of additional investment in Kawerau in the form of co-funding.

None of the projects’ money will be reprioritised.

Gradon says the most exciting funding for the region is the container terminal in Kawerau.

“It’s creating a whole hub to bolt on to what we have today as the best clean energy in New Zealand.”

In February last year, a $19.9m investment from the PGF was announced for the town.

This includes a $9.6m cash injection into the container terminal, which will take 100,000 truck movements off the road a year between Kawerau and the Port of Tauranga.

This, and the funded roading networks, link to the Putauaki Trust Industrial Hub.

The hub is a 113ha block of land, owned by the iwi entity Putauaki Trust, being redeveloped into an industrial zone.

Gradon says if they can double-down on the clean energy coming out of Kawerau, and turn it into transportable clean energy, it would be “the future of New Zealand”.

He believes the town is positioned to be one of the key industrial areas in the country for clean energy and industry.

The town also has some of the country’s best engineers, involved in the mills, geothermal energy and the skills and processing capacity to create it.

Gradon does acknowledge a lag in the town’s economy, which he says comes down to 10 years of ignoring the rise of gangs.

“We need to create something better.”

And they’re working on it.

Through Kawerau Industrial Symbiosis, there’s been a push to work out ways the business community can come together to solve social problems.

He says investment into roading through the Putauaki Trust will attract businesses, like the established Māori-owned Waiū Dairy, to the area.

“You’ve got New Zealand’s timber right on the doorstep, timber mills, paper mills to take the by-product, you’ve got a railhead that brings materials in and out.”

Kawerau District Council chief executive Russell George says the council’s main concerns are with those affected, however there is a lot to be excited about in the town.

They see Kawerau as the future of a green economy, he says, with the renewable geothermal energy and the process heat available for industry, as well as the opportunity for the hydrogen-powered industry.

Just this week, an initiative was presented to the council about installing a natural gas pipeline that will eventually transition to hydrogen in the future.

This will help engineering firms complete industry work in Kawerau and throughout the country.

The council immediately offered its support and is now seeking external funding.

Mayor Malcolm Campbell says at this point in time it doesn’t look like the town will be hurt by the mill closure, especially with all of the industry in town.

“Kawerau won’t shut down, in fact, we’re going forward with a hiss and a roar.”

Campbell says the town and its people are resilient, and the people will bounce back.

The importance of the sister towns

The success of the towns in the sub-region – Kawerau, Whakatāne and Ōpōtiki – are all directly linked, Gradon says.

He’s also the president of the Eastern Bay of Plenty Chamber of Commerce and says there are “heavy investments” in the boat building sector in Whakatāne, which has boat orders up to two years in advance.

A large marine travel lift – which will allow boats to return to be serviced -is being put on the Whakatāne River, and the building of a boat harbour is also hoped to begin in six months.

“They’re jobs that fit very, very well with the skills coming out of the Norske mill.”

An aquaculture facility in Ōpōtiki was “the big bet for the region”and is the largest consented aquaculture facility in the country.

It is part of a $26m of improvements to the Opotiki River including plans for a mussel farm expansion and a new mussel processing facility.

Gradon says there will be 300 jobs in the area in the next five years, and 100 started yesterday.

The farm and facility need quality, experienced leaders – the kind coming out of the Norske Mill, he says.

The kiwifruit industry will also be booming in the East and Gradon says the Rangitāiki Plains is one of the biggest kiwifruit development areas.

Many of those in the Norske mill are at the age and stage of starting their own civil contracting businesses or purchasing a kiwifruit block.

The way the Whakatāne Mill has been structured “could not be better for our economy,” he says – more are being recruited, the plant is being modernised, and the redundancies are still being paid in tranches, although people kept their jobs.

“There’s a confidence in the region, money is being spent that otherwise wouldn’t be available to the sub-region’s economy.

“It’s all happening … That’s really exciting.”

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