EASTPORT, Maine — While eastern Washington County waits to see what its largest employer plans to do with its pulp mill, the port authority here is making plans.
Domtar Corp. announced last month that it was idling its pulp mill in Baileyville indefinitely because of the poor global economy. The layoff begins May 5 and will affect more than 300 employees.
The mill has an annual hardwood pulp production capacity of 398,000 metric tons, and most of what is produced is shipped out of Estes Head in Eastport to foreign markets.
Last year was a record year for the cargo port’s activities, as 376,873 metric tons of cargo were shipped over its piers, an 8,000-ton increase over 2007. In fact, the port has had record-setting growth in seven of the past eight years, having grown more than 160 percent in this decade, port authority officials have said.
But the port’s anchor has been Domtar, partnering with the company and its predecessor, Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific Corp., for more than 30 years, port authority director Chris Gardner said in a recent interview.
“In the short term we are going to continue working with Domtar on the shipments that need to go out from existing operations and what is warehoused,” he said. “We also, in the short term, look to stand in a position of ready to assist Domtar in returning.”
At the same time, the port is looking at other options, including windmills.
“We have been working for the past couple of years to see if we can get into the importation of windmills, and it looks as though that is going to happen,” he said. “We anticipate receiving our first shipment of windmill blades toward the end of April.”
The blades are destined for wind projects in Maine.
Gardner said he also was pursuing the bulk-shipping market. “Everything from aggregate to wood chips to wood pellets, anything of that nature,” he said. “We have identified that those are an option for a port of our size and setup.”
Gardner, who has been port director for the past two years, said officials met last month with Washington County’s legislative delegation to talk about the future. “As the state invests in the two other ports in Maine, being Portland and Searsport, we just want to make sure that we’ve identified the best … of any opportunities of investment,” he said.
If the state puts together a bond package for port improvements, Gardner wants Eastport to be a part of it.
Gardner said Gov. John Baldacci has talked about Maine as a three-port state, and he said he believes the governor is interested in Estes Head. “The governor has been very forthright in his discussions about the future, not just for the port of Eastport and Domtar but all of Washington County,” he said.
There also is a need for the return of rail service, Gardner said. “We have been working on that with the Maine Department of Transportation for the past couple of years to see what those options are,” he said.
There are 87 miles of inactive rail bed in Washington and Hancock counties which are planned to be turned into trails.
Gardner said he does not anticipate the port’s rail needs will get in the way of the rails to trails project.
“We realize we have to diversify and that is what we have been working on since day one,” he said. “Without that rail connection we really are — as somebody coined the phrase, and I am stealing it — a pier without a port,” he said.