AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers were still negotiating Wednesday evening on a bill authorizing the state to acquire an aging landfill in East Millinocket in hopes of removing a potential obstacle to finding a buyer for two shuttered paper mills in the region.
Earlier Wednesday, the House endorsed a compromise on LD 1567 which would allow the Maine State Planning Office to take over the Dolby Landfill in the event that the two Katahdin Paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket are sold to a new owner.
The bill is expected to be considered in the Senate on Thursday but will likely face opposition from some Democrats concerned about taking on the liabilities of an old landfill. But bill sponsor Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, said he believed he had picked up enough Democratic support to win the two-thirds majority necessary to pass the bill.
LD 1567 was already a priority of the LePage administration. But the bill appeared to gain even more urgency in the final days of the legislative session following reports that officials were negotiating with a potential buyer, identified as the International Grand Investors Corp.
The mills’ current owner, Brookfield Asset Management, has told the state that unless a deal is struck soon, the company will decommission and dismantle the mills that have been the economic lifeblood of the Katahdin region for decades.
But Brookfield has also warned that selling the mills will be difficult to impossible if the nearly full landfill is still attached. Potential buyers will not want to inherit the environmental liabilities and financial costs of running and then closing the dump.
That has put lawmakers and the LePage administration in a tough spot: either assume ownership of the landfill or risk the permanent loss of up to 600 good-paying jobs in a region already struggling with high unemployment. And if the mills are liquidated, the state could still end up owning the landfill, bill supporters said.
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, whose district includes the Katahdin region, took the somewhat unusual step of issuing a statement on a bill pending in the Maine Legislature.
“To be clear, I recognize this is an unusual situation and that some legislators may have questions about potential liability and cost of such state action,” Michaud said. “However, from my work on these issues during my time in Congress and the Maine Legislature, I remain convinced that such concerns, should they ever materialize, can be satisfactorily addressed through both additional state and federal action.”
But numerous lawmakers have serious concerns about the state repeating the process that led the state to purchase what is now the Juniper Ridge Landfill outside of Old Town from Georgia-Pacific Corp. Despite the purchase, Georgia-Pacific later closed the mill.
In the House, Rep. James Hamper, R-Oxford, succeeded in amending the bill to specify that the state will only assume ownership of the landfill after the sale has been finalized.
Additionally, the amendment also directs the State Planning Office to consider a possible cap on the state’s financial liability in closing the landfill as well as the office receiving from the buyer “an acceptable business plan, including employment projections.”
The Senate is expected to consider at least one additional amendment to the bill.