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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia W. Aho signed over operating licenses for two dormant paper mills to their imminent owner late Wednesday afternoon, a move that brings the restoration of hundreds of jobs in the Katahdin region one step closer to reality.
DEP spokeswoman Samantha DePoy-Warren said the numerous licenses cover issues ranging from wastewater and solid waste disposal to storm water runoff to processes that will be used to scrub the smokestacks of the mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket. A 20-day public comment period required by law came and went without a single comment filed, according to DePoy-Warren, who said the DEP was able to expedite its approval because the permits in question already were held by the mills’ previous operator, Brookfield Asset Management.
Though the transfer has been signed, the operating licenses are contingent on another crucial aspect of the overall deal: the State Planning Office taking ownership of the Dolby landfill in East Millinocket, which also requires a DEP permit. The 20-day comment period for that part of the deal ends on Sept. 26, and unlike the other permits, there already is opposition.
The Portland-based Conservation Law Foundation is raising concerns that the state’s plan to assume ownership of the landfill violates the Maine Constitution because it saddles the state with millions of dollars in future operations and closure costs. The foundation, which focuses on environmental advocacy, has filed the only letter of concern received by the DEP to date.
Sean Mahoney, who heads the foundation’s Maine office, said his organization does not oppose the reopening of the mills but merely wants the deal done legally.
“If the deal to reopen the mills is successful, we wish them all the luck and we want that for the sake of that region,” said Mahoney. “We also think it’s important to follow the state Constitution. We can’t just give this a wink wink, nudge nudge.”
Article 9, Section 14 of the state Constitution bars the Legislature from creating debts or liabilities in excess of $2 million without a two-thirds vote of both houses and a successful statewide referendum.
Darrell Brown, director of the State Planning Office, said the landfill as it is designed has enough capacity for another three to five years, depending on how heavily it is used by the paper mills. The cost of closing the landfill once the capacity is used up is estimated to be about $11 million, plus another $6 million in costs over the ensuing couple of decades. Brown said there is room at the site for a third landfill to be put on top of two existing ones, depending on the needs of the mills, but that would cost the state more money in engineering and construction fees.
Brown said the state’s future liabilities associated with the landfill are dwarfed by the benefits of reopening the mills.
“This has been a great partnership between a number of parties in an attempt to bring jobs to an area that very desperately needs them and to maintain the viability of a crucial Maine industry,” said Brown. “As for paying for the landfill closure, those final details will have to be worked out as we reach the appropriate time for closure.”
Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, said the administration is confident that the landfill deal doesn’t violate the provisions in the Constitution about taking on debt.
Brenda Kielty, a spokeswoman for Attorney General William Schneider, said Schneider is aware of the Conservation Law Foundation’s objections, but has made no decisions from a legal standpoint. Kielty said that will happen when the 20-day comment period expires next week.
“This question has to be answered when the DEP acts on this application for a license transfer,” said Kielty. “At that time there may be more information to consider.”
Cate Street Capital of Portsmouth, N.H., which purchased the mills in escrow late Friday, plans to sign the final sale document on Sept. 27, a day after the open 20-day comment period lapses.
As he toured the East Millinocket paper mill on Wednesday, Great Northern Paper Co. LLC CEO Richard Cyr said that any issue with the Dolby landfill most properly resided with state officials, not his company. He said he tended to view sympathetically issues raised by the Conservation Law Foundation and pledged to do what the company reasonably could to allay any environmental concerns.
“We are a green company ourselves,” Cyr said.
Mahoney, of the Conservation Law Foundation, said he just wants to make sure that state government can back up its promises with funding.
“We wouldn’t raise the issue if we thought we were wrong,” said Mahoney. “It’s certainly not making us popular with anybody. Our goal is not to stop the mills from reopening, but just to make sure this is done right.”
Bangor Daily News writer Nick Sambides Jr. contributed to this report.