BAILEYVILLE, Maine — Saving the Domtar pulp mill was the message that Maine’s senior senator brought to workers Monday.
“The goal is to reopen,” U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said during a visit to the mill Monday. “That is what we all are geared to [do].”
Domtar announced last month that it will idle the pulp mill for an indefinite period, affecting more than 300 employees beginning May 5. The mill has an annual hardwood pulp production capacity of 398,000 metric tons.
Snowe on Monday afternoon visited with senior staff members behind closed doors and then met with millworkers. Later she met with local officials and union leaders.
The senator also visited the mill two years ago after the Montreal-based company announced it was idling the paper mill. Two months later it was announced the mill was closing permanently. More than 150 workers lost their jobs.
What makes this time different, Snowe said, is the pulp mill was making money last year.
“This is a very impressive operation,” she said, “and they were making money until the last quarter of last year, which mirrored what was happening nationally.”
But Snowe warned that the country faces difficult challenges. “This is the worst recession since the Great Depression,” she told local officials during the open part of the meeting. “The crisis we are facing nationally is really based on a global downturn. The recession produces a lack of demand and historically high inventories [of pulp products].”
Snowe said she supported the president’s recently enacted stimulus package because it would help jump-start the economy and provide needed assistance to states with an infusion of capital.
Interim Baileyville Town Manager Dottie Johnson said she was concerned about how the money will be distributed. “We see … that a lot of the money is going to the southern part of the state,” she said.
Snowe said her staff, working through the governor’s office, would examine how the distribution was being handled.
Snowe also talked about the Trade Adjustment Assistance options, which she worked to include in the stimulus package. The TAA program assists companies that can demonstrate that a layoff or plant closing is related to foreign competition. If the company meets TAA requirements, then the affected community may be eligible to receive assistance through the program.
“This is the first time such a provision has been included in the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program,” Snowe said.
The mill is expected to qualify because pulp mills in Latin America have been undercutting its business. The Department of Labor will be drafting rules, she said, which will be available in August.
Union leaders said after their closed-door meeting with Snowe that they felt the senator was working in their best interest.
“I think they are really going to try and help us out, and I truly hope so,” said Philip Polk, vice president of United Steelworkers Local 27.
Andri Melanson, president of Firemen and Oilers, Chapter 330, also said it was a positive meeting. He said he planned to tell his rank-and-file that Maine’s delegation is working for them.
Snowe told the press after her meetings that the future for the country was in manufacturing. “I do believe there is a renewed appreciation for manufacturing capability and the manufacturing sector. And we are looking inward so that we are in a position as a country to compete globally,” she said.