January 12,  2007   

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Former Mearl plant, longtime Eastport employer, to close

by Edward French                      

     The last commercial natural pearl essence plant in the world will be closing in a few months. The former Mearl Corporation, a long-time employer in Eastport, will be shutting the doors of its Broad Cove plant for good during the second quarter of this year, according to Ted Lowen, director of communications for BASF, the German chemical company giant that acquired the plant when it took over the Engelhard Corporation last June. Engelhard had acquired the Mearl Corporation in 1996.

     The pearl essence plant now has only three remaining employees -- down from over 250 workers that were employed during the Mearl's heyday. After closing the plant, BASF will begin dismantling the site and will seek a low environmental risk certification from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Lowen does not believe there will be any significant environmental issues. He expects that BASF will consider looking for a buyer for the property early in 2008.

     Eastport City Manager George Finch says, "We're very interested in working with BASF for the future disposition of the property that will leave the city in good standing." He notes that the property is one of the major industrial pieces of land in the city, and the city does not want to lose it as a site for possible industry. He has met with state officials about the property and says the city "will actively pursue opportunities for that land in conjunction with BASF."

     According to Lowen, the decision to close the plant was not related to BASF's acquisition of Engelhard, and he notes that Engelhard had looked at shutting down the facility in 2005. He says the site isn't profitable, and the natural pearl essence has been replaced by mica-based pigments. The pearl essence, obtained from herring scales, is used in the cosmetics industry, previously for fingernail polish and in more recent years for shampoos.

     The employees were informed over the Christmas holidays about the closing, and he notes that the decision was not a surprise to any of them. "We're sorry to see our presence in Eastport come to an end after a great, long history and tradition there," comments Lowen.

     The Mearl Corporation was formed in 1933 by Harry E. Mattin and Francis Earl of New York and Burton G. Turner of Eastport. It began near the site of the former Hotel East on Water Street and then moved to where the breakwater is now located. That plant burned in 1947. Over the years, the Mearl Corporation had facilities in Eastport at Broad Cove, which is the remaining plant, Estes Head, Prince's Cove, at the former American Can Co. building on Sea St. and the former Peacock factory in North End. The company had pearl essence plants in Rockland, Jonesport, Beaver Harbour, Dipper Harbour and St. George, N.B., and in Virginia, and it also had operations in Shippagan, N.B., Digby, N.S., many locations in Newfoundland, Gaspé, Quebec and British Columbia. In addition, the Mearl Corporation invested in boats for Maine and New Brunswick fishermen to run the herring scales from the weirs and purse seiners to the plant. Corporate headquarters were in Ossining, N.Y.

     Along with pearl essence, Mearl's operations over the years have included fertilizer, the manufacturing of firefighting foam, frozen herring fillets for Germany and Japan, barrelled, canned and vinegar-cured herring, herring milt and roe and skins, sea urchin roe, squid, shrimp, elvers, alewives and rockweed. A large part of its operations in Eastport were closed in 1981.

     Although the facilities have been owned by other corporations, David Turner, the plant manager and Burton Turner's grandson, points out that it's been a family business over the past 64 years. "It's a piece of history that's going to be gone."

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