Henderson history: Two big industry announcements come in late June 1999

Late June 1999 saw lumber giant Weyerhaeuser Co. getting ready to acquire the MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. corrugated box recycling plant – now owned by International Paper Co.

And a huge Norwegian-based conglomerate announced plans to convert the old Unison plant into the country’s first scrap aluminum recycling plant that could compete with much larger smelters.

I spent a lot of my youth in towns with paper mills – or settling ponds that smelled just as bad – so I’m familiar with the rotten egg stench traditionally associated with that industry. (I’ll give you a stronger whiff of that smell in a moment.)

Henderson narrowly missed that fate in late 1959 and 1960.

On Aug. 2, 1959, the Diamond National Co. took an 18-month option on 200 acres adjacent and west of Spencer Chemical Co. The paper products company – the country’s foremost producer of paper matchbooks -- planned to build a $16-million plant for its Molded Packaging Division, according to The Gleaner of March 20, 1960.

That never came to pass.

Henderson’s first experience with the paper industry came in The Gleaner of Aug. 11, 1994, when MacBlo confirmed it was going to spend $100 million on a state-of-the-art plant in Henderson Corporate Park to recycle what most people call cardboard.

“The plant will recycle pulp from old corrugated boxes to manufacture linerboard, a brown paper similar to paper grocery bags,” according to the story by Chuck Stinnett, who also wrote most of the following articles cited. “The paper is used on the inside and outside of corrugated boxes that will be produced at other plants.”

Henderson was selected from among 30 cities, from Gary, Indiana, to Albany, Georgia. The choice was made on our central geographic location, the “excellent transportation facilities,” the “outstanding work force,” low utility rates, and availability of state tax credits.

The city of Henderson would spend about $1 million extending power and gas lines to the site but expected to quickly recoup that money by large sales of electricity and natural gas.

Recruitment of the firm “has truly been a team effort,” Mayor Glenn Johnson said, but he singled out Marty Blubaugh, former executive director of the Henderson Economic Development Council, for special praise.

“He worked tirelessly,” Johnson said. “Marty is really the one responsible for all this.”

MacMillan Bloedel officials tried to allay concerns of nearby residents by stoutly denying the plant would generate the infamous stench of traditional paper plants.

“The odor really comes from the cooking process in the (pulp) mill,” explained Fred Ernst, president of MacMillan Bloedel Packaging. “We’re not doing that. We’re just re-pulping” boxes that have already been through that process. “It’s not a chemical process.”

As originally built, the company pre-treated wastewater in two large settling basins outside the plant. Sludge accumulated for up to a year in those basins and its decomposition released hydrogen sulfide – the same gas that rotten eggs emit.

The International Paper plant in Henderson started as MacMillan Bloedel in 1995 and remained that when this aerial photo was taken in 1998. International Paper bought it in 2008. The two settling basins at lower left caused many odor problems before they were filled in.
The International Paper plant in Henderson started as MacMillan Bloedel in 1995 and remained that when this aerial photo was taken in 1998. International Paper bought it in 2008. The two settling basins at lower left caused many odor problems before they were filled in.

Neighbors began complaining. Larry Griffin, the company’s technical manager, said it was a design problem. “It was not a very good choice for treatment because it gave off odor,” he said in The Gleaner of Nov. 13, 1998.

In August of that year, MacBlo and the Henderson Water Utility began bypassing the settling basins and sending wastewater directly to the city’s sewage treatment plant on Drury Lane. The basins were eventually emptied and filled in.

“It’s a vast improvement,” said Mike Becker, one of the neighbors who had been complaining about odor. “Whatever they’ve done, it worked. We haven’t smelled anything in two months. It’s been great.”

That experiment prompted MacBlo to spend about $2 million to expand the city sewage treatment plant, as well as pay HWU’s operating expenses – plus 30 percent – for handling its waste.

The MacBlo plant planned to employ about 90 people at an average hourly wage of $15. But it took a different approach. “We made a decision that rather than hire other (paper companies’) problems, we’ll hire people who don’t have experience in our industry,” President Fred Ernst said in the Aug. 11, 1994, Gleaner. He said the company wanted workers who lacked preconceived notions about how the plant should run.

The Gleaner of April 2, 1995, showcased the results. About 1,300 interested applicants showed up at the firm’s open house at Day’s Inn – some of them driving all the way from Lexington. There were 500 in the first 30 minutes.

The plant opened at the end of 1995. But it remained under the MacBlo logo for only 3.5 more years. The Gleaner of June 22, 1999, announced that through a stock swap forestry products giant Weyerhaeuser was merging with MacBlo.

The deal offered advantages for both companies. MacBlo officials had expressed disappointment with its packaging segment, while Weyerhaeuser wanted more capacity. MacBlo produced more linerboard than its factories required, while Weyerhaeuser couldn’t make enough.

A company spokesman said the stock swap would have no impact on the sewage treatment agreement MacBlo had worked out with the city in 1998.

In mid-March 2008, Weyerhaeuser announced it was selling its local paper recycling mill to International Paper, the mill\'s third owner in its 13-year history. The transaction package of buying Weyerhaeuser\'s entire containerboard division, which had a total worth of $6 billion, was completed Aug. 4.

Henderson’s most recent development along those lines came when Pratt Industries Inc. officially opened the company’s $500 million paper mill and box factory, which was this area’s largest investment in over 25 years. Pratt broke ground on the first of the two facilities in December 2021 and it opened in 2023.

Switching now from paper to aluminum – and its predecessor.

Anyone who remembers the mid-1980s probably is familiar with the huge controversy that surrounded Union Carbide’s effort to have its subsidiary, Unison Transformer Services, open a plant here to separate PCBs from transformer fluid.

It lasted years but in retrospect the fuss seems a little overblown. One small leak of toxic fluid occurred June 9, 1988, but was contained by the plant’s safety measures. A single citation occurred later that year for a mislabeled barrel.

The plant operated a decade before closing in 1998, processing fluid from more than 6,000 transformers.

The first publicity about the plant’s new occupant came in The Gleaner of March 10, 1999, when Jimmy Jones, executive director of Henderson Economic Development Council, confirmed a subsidiary of Norsk Hydro ASA was considering buying the Unison plant to convert scrap extrusion aluminum into billet that would have the same quality as that produced by giant aluminum smelters.

But it would use only 5 percent of the energy.

The Gleaner of June 29 kind of stole the company’s thunder by relaying much of the same information the company disclosed in the official announcement in the June 30 Gleaner. The plant would cost $33 million.

“For them to put their first (U.S.) primary metals plant in Henderson is a feather in our cap,” said Jones.

100 YEARS AGO

The city of Morganfield was accepting bids to run an 8-inch water line to the Ohio River at Uniontown at an estimated cost of $120,000, according to The Gleaner of June 26, 1924.

The city first was getting water for 20 years at no cost when it permitted the Lloyd Mining Co. to sink a shaft. McGinnis Bros. took over the mine and refused to honor that agreement. A lawsuit followed.

The upshot was the city would pay $100 a month for water. The new water line to the Ohio would negate the need for that agreement.

75 YEARS AGO

Archie Riehl, principal at Barret Manual Training High School, was thinking about running for mayor until an assistant attorney general squelched that idea, according to The Gleaner of June 23, 1949.

Assistant Attorney General W. Owen Keller wrote an opinion saying there was no law specifically prohibiting a principal from holding a city office. But he pointed out that under the commission form of government the mayor and commissioners in city’s like Henderson had to approve the school’s financing statements. That made the two posts conflict, he said.

“Well, it looks like that stops me,” said Riehl. “I’d like to have tried it. I thought every citizen should try his hand in local government.”

But, he said, “If elected I would have to resign my position at school because the mayor is supposed to maintain regular office hours and so forth.

“And I couldn’t live on the smaller salary. At present, I can’t retire as a teacher under the pension plan.”

50 YEARS AGO

Henderson’s opening celebration of the Bicentennial kicked off when a dozen “criminals” were (tongue-in-cheek) charged with “profanity, dancing, gaming, sulky racing, poaching, cavorting, witchcraft, sedition, and selling whiskey to the Indians,” according to The Gleaner of June 27, 1974.

The presiding judge at Midwest Harness was Gross Clay Lindsay.

Among those brought before him were Mayor Bill Newman, County Judge A.G. Pritchett, the Rev. John Conn, Gleaner publisher Walt Dear, Gleaner editor Ron Jenkins, James R. “Buck” Rash, Anne Sheffer, Ed Keller, Rich Garrett, John Goodson and Mike Yasine.

Readers of The Gleaner can reach Frank Boyett at YesNews42@yahoo.com.

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Henderson history: Two big industries announced in late June 1999

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