BAILEYVILLE, Maine — Legislators touring the Woodland Pulp and St. Croix tissue mills in Baileyville on Thursday said they now have a better understanding of the challenges faced by Maine’s paper industry.
Those challenges include the high costs of wood; the high costs of fuel, especially natural gas; and the slow turnaround time for rail transit.
“I believe today was very illuminating for the members of the legislative delegation,” said Woodland Pulp spokesman Scott Beal.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said mill officials expressed concern that landowners are taking advantage of the state Tree Growth Tax Program without having any intention of harvesting trees.
“They think far too many are taking advantage without being part of the woodbasket that feeds these mills,” Thibodeau said. “More emphasis needs to be given to offer tax relief to people who truly intend to harvest.”
Other tax relief programs exist for those who merely wish to preserve their land, he said.
House Majority Leader Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, and Rep. Stacey K. Guerin, R-Glenburn, agreed, saying the Legislature will have to look for ways to increase accountability in the Tree Growth program.
The high cost of natural gas was not an issue lawmakers felt they could quickly solve.
Beal said the company is paying triple what a sister plant in Oregon pays for natural gas.
Thibodeau said he was optimistic about getting a natural gas pipeline into Dracut, Massachusetts, so that Maine and the rest of New England can take advantage of emerging natural gas fields in New York and Pennsylvania. A natural gas pipeline already exists from Nova Scotia to Boston to serve the state of Maine.
“If we can get gas into Dracut, we have a super highway to our state,” Thibodeau said.
Railroad transportation is no superhighway, however, with transit times ranging from seven to 30 days for a shipment to arrive, said Beal.
“That’s not acceptable,” said Guerin.
She said she would like to see the Legislature reach out to the railroad companies and try to address the issue of shipping times so paper companies can operate their businesses efficiently.
McCabe said Madison Paper Industries, which is located in his district, “cut ties” with the railroads after having to send trucks to pick up shipments the railroads would not deliver in a timely fashion.
In addition to the top three concerns, legislators picked up on other issues important to the paper industry. For example, Thibodeau said the mill officials want the state to offer a stable tax code and not be changing things.
“They don’t want the rules to change after they’ve made this investment,” he said.
All the legislators on the tour, which was not open to the public or media, said they learned quite a bit, and will take that information to a summit to be hosted by the Maine Pulp & Paper Association on Nov. 17 at the Bangor Hilton Garden Inn.
Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, called the tour “exciting” and said she will take “everything I’ve learned” to the summit.
Thibodeau was especially enthusiastic about Woodland Pulp’s installation of two new tissue machines, which are expected to be up and running in the first and second quarters of 2016.
“These jobs are imperative to Washington County,” he said. “This isn’t a short term thing. This will be employment in the Calais area for decades to come.”