Mill jobs hang in balance, lawmakers warned  

Posted May 20, 2011, at 7:18 p.m.
Last modified May 20, 2011, at 7:48 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Town officials from the Katahdin region joined the LePage administration on Friday in urging state lawmakers to approve a bill that would allow the state to purchase a landfill tied to the fate of roughly 600 papermaking jobs in the area.

Brookfield Asset Management, the parent company of the East Millinocket and Millinocket mills, has made clear that the state needs to begin the process of purchasing the old Dolby landfill in East Millinocket as part of efforts to find a new buyer.

Last month, Brookfield put the state on notice that unless a new buyer is found within 90 days, the Toronto-based company will begin decommissioning and dismantling the two mills that have served as the backbone of the local economy for generations.

With that July 26 deadline rapidly approaching, lawmakers heard testimony Friday on a proposal that would authorize the state to purchase and continue to operate the aging Dolby landfill.

“Without this purchase by the state, the opportunity to re-employ approximately 600 people at the two mills will be lost,” Eugene Conlogue, Millinocket town manager, told members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

About 450 workers at the East Millinocket mill were idled earlier this spring when a deal between Brookfield and an investor looking to buy the mills fell through. The Millinocket mill was shut down in 2008, resulting in roughly 150 layoffs.

Located in East Millinocket, the Dolby landfill is almost completely filled with years of sludge and chemicals from the papermaking process. Two of the three landfill sections are closed and within the third, 15 of the 17 “cells” are full. Once the landfill is officially closed, it will have to be covered or capped and then monitored.

There is precedent to Maine state government getting into the landfill business in order to save jobs at a mill.

In 2003, the state assumed ownership of what is now the Juniper Ridge landfill in order to keep the Georgia-Pacific mill in Old Town from closing down and laying off 450 workers.

Georgia-Pacific left town several years later anyway — a point raised Friday by several skeptics of the plan for the Dolby landfill. But the mill was not scrapped and today employs about 180 people under a different owner and business model.

“We had been faced with these problems with the mill in Old Town and the solution to that problem worked,” said Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, whose district includes Millinocket and East Millinocket. “We are asking for you to do the same thing in Millinocket.”

The Dolby landfill is a sticking point in negotiations over the two Katahdin region mills because many prospective buyers do not want to be saddled with the financial and environmental liability of operating, maintaining and eventually closing a nearly-filled landfill.

Several speakers questioned whether the state wants to wade into that potential financial minefield.

“It’s their liability, not ours,” said Charlie Gibbs, a former millworker from Alton who is actively involved in a group critical of the state’s management of Juniper Ridge landfill.

Paul McCarrier said he believes that state is assuming a large liability for no guarantee that those mills jobs will still exist a few years down the line. He also pointed to the state’s purchase of the former Georgia-Pacific landfill to save more than 400 jobs.

“Today, less than one-quarter of those jobs still exist and yet the state still has the liability of the Georgia-Pacific sludge dump,” McCarrier said. “That doesn’t sound like a good deal to me.”

But supporters of the bill, including representatives of the LePage administration, pointed out that the state likely would end up with the liability of the landfill anyway if Brookfield walked away without a new buyer.

Only in that case, the matter would end up in court, likely costing the state additional money, and still would leave the state having to pay to close the landfill. But in that scenario, the mill jobs would be lost permanently.

Mark Marston, a selectman in East Millinocket, estimated that unemployment payments for 400 people would cost the state about $2.9 million, not including all the lost revenue from income taxes and the multiplier effect on other businesses.

The committee is expected to hold a work session on LD 1567 next Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.

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