As one mill closes, another is intentionally left in limbo

By Senator Brad Farrin

AUGUSTA – The recent announcement that Pixelle Specialty Papers will close the mill in Jay has already sent shockwaves across the forest products industry. Set for the first quarter of next year, the closure will affect about 230 employees – some of whom have invested an entire career at the plant.

Sen. Brad Farrin – Somerset

When International Paper (IP) first built the mill in 1965, I was barely a year old. The Androscoggin Mill had the best technology available at the time and employed 1,500 at its peak. When IP divested its coated paper division and sold the mill to Verso Paper Holdings in 2006, 1,000 people still worked there. The sale was notable because the Androscoggin Mill had been the only one in Maine to never change hands since it was built.

When Verso filed for bankruptcy in 2016, the workforce had already shrunk to around 400 after the No. 2 and No. 3 machines were idled. Yet an investment of $17 million in 2018 brought 190 workers back, a level that held steady until the mill’s digester was destroyed in an explosion just two months after the mill was sold by Verso to its current owner in 2020.

Since then, the Jay Mill has essentially been in limbo, a shell of its former glory. Insurance money came and went; and the digester was never rebuilt to ensure the mill could be financially viable. This lack of investment and the need to buy outside pulp obviously led to the mill’s demise. And all indications show that Governor Janet Mills is pushing Sappi’s mill in Skowhegan down the same path.

With the closure of the Jay Mill, Sappi will be only one of five major mills remaining in the state. Brookfield White Pine Hydro, LLC, which operates the Shawmut hydroelectric dam in the Kennebec River that provides power and intake water to the Sappi Mill, filed for relicensure from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in January 2020 to continue operating the dam and install a new upstream fish lift.

Since then, it’s been quite apparent that Mills has allowed her Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to either jeopardize or prevent its relicensure. I sounded the alarm about this last year when DMR wanted to recommend removing two dams in the state to hopefully sway FERC’s relicensing process regarding Shawmut. I then tried to introduce legislation in 2021 that would have reined in DMR, but that effort was shot down by the majority. However, I was able to aid the passage of LD 1979 earlier this year to at least give the Legislature more oversight of the process.

Then on July 29, the Maine DEP issued a draft denial of Brookfield’s request for the required water quality certification for the dam. Although they reapplied on Sept. 22, the July denial jeopardizes the dam and the mill itself and is another example of the hypocrisy shown by the Mills Administration.

Mills said she wants to move the state toward renewable energy, yet she wants to destroy an existing source of hydropower generation and potentially thousands of jobs along with it – all for three to five fish per year. And just like with the mill in Jay, Sappi will at some point calculate that the risk of investment far outweighs the benefit of keeping the mill viable – some fear it’s already happening.

The permit denial is simply the latest waypoint along that path since FERC won’t issue the license or any proposed changes without the water certification by Maine DEP. Mills knows this and is jeopardizing the mill and the rest of the forest products sector that contributes an estimated $8.1 billion to our state economy and employs over 31,000 people.

Instead, she should pick up the phone today and have Maine DEP approve Brookfield’s clean water certification to allow the process to continue. Anything less and she leaves thousands of Mainers unnecessarily in limbo.

Sen. Brad Farrin is in his second term serving District 3. He is the Senate Republican Lead for the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee as well as the Transportation Committee.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s