ORONO, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci reiterated his administration’s support for Maine’s beleaguered pulp and paper mills Wednesday, pledging to continue working with the industry on energy, transportation and environmental regulation.
Baldacci addressed the leaders of Maine’s largest paper and wood products companies at a time when mills throughout the state are scaling back production or closing altogether. But the governor credited the industry with taking steps to keep mills going or preparing for when the economy recovers.
“Some of you are making investments, some of you are gearing yourselves up to hit the ground running when we come out of this recession so that you can take full advantage,” Baldacci told attendees of the annual Paper Days conference held at the University of Maine. “Others are trying to find different business plans and diversify to see if there are other ways to maintain profitability and maintain operations.”
The governor said the state can do its part by addressing high energy costs through development of locally generated energy sources and expanding the transmission infrastructure. In the area of transportation, Baldacci said he believes the state is making progress on its long-standing campaign to lift restrictions on trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds on Interstate 95.
The administration also plans to announce a new rail initiative in the coming weeks to expand both passenger and freight rail, increase access to industrial rail and better use the state’s ports.
Baldacci told the crowd that he continues to stress to officials in the Department of Environmental Protection the importance of providing more predictability in the regulatory process without lowering the state’s environmental standards.
“We want to let you know you have a partner, you have somebody who understands and somebody who wants to work with you to do what we can do to support you,” Baldacci said.
The federal government has begun making large payments — tens of millions of dollars in some cases — to paper companies nationwide for using a byproduct of the pulping process known as “black liquor” as fuel for their mills.
But there hasn’t been much good news coming out of Maine’s paper industry in recent months.
Late last month, Wausau Paper Corp. announced plans to permanently close its Jay mill. Domtar Corp. plans to indefinitely shut down its Baileyville plant, putting more than 300 people out of work. Many of Maine’s other mills have announced machine shutdowns, furloughs or other cutbacks.
But Baldacci pointed out that Maine is still the nation’s second-largest paper producer after Wisconsin, and that the average salary in the industry is about $60,000 — nearly double the state average.
John Williams, president of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, also said rumors of the industry’s demise in the state were incorrect. Many of the companies based outside of the state still have all or most of their mills in Maine, he said.
“These companies are thinking about their future in Maine,” Williams said. “They are really committed to Maine.”