The Shawmut Dam on the Kennebec River between Fairfield and Benton is pictured on Aug. 20, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.

A long and complicated war between the administration of Gov. Janet Mills and the owner of four Kennebec River dams took on an electoral tinge on Monday after former Gov. Paul LePage called a news conference to rail against the state’s recent delay of certification for a dam that the Sappi pulp mill in Skowhegan relies on.

LePage had local lawmakers in tow for a news conference in Augusta, raising the specter of the mill closing. Bringing his signature brand of amplification, he ended things by suggesting that while he did not invite company officials to his news conference, they may not want to speak out against Mills because she is “very vindictive if you’ve not followed her reign of terror.”

The allusion to French Revolution massacres aside, the issue is real. While neither the dam nor the mill is probably going anywhere, it was the Mills administration that suggested removing this dam and three others along the river early last year to allow the endangered Atlantic salmon and other fish to access upstream spawning grounds, a move backed by environmentalists.

But the state’s mishandling of that maneuver and political pressure followed, leading the governor to edge off a hard line by last summer, after top legislative Democrats broke with her. In a letter, she vowed to stick up for the mill. She also said a subsidiary of the global investment giant Brookfield Asset Management, which owns the dam, and allies were wrongly suggesting the Shawmut Dam will have to be removed for fish-passage standards to be met.

The state has made some concessions but has generally stuck to stringent fish-passage requirements. The last move came in June, when the state issued a draft rejection for a dam certification, citing fish-passage changes anticipated at the federal level. Brookfield and Sappi have challenged that, with the mill saying it is operating under a “cloud of uncertainty” as a result. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, has advocated for a speedier federal review process to help resolve things.

The Mills administration has underscored that this decision was not on the merits and that a new permit request will be reconsidered once federal issues are resolved. Lindsay Crete, the governor’s spokesperson, said Mills expects her regulators to review that request quickly “so that this process can be concluded once and for all.”

“She will not allow the mill to close, and she will not support any outcome in the dam’s relicensing that jeopardizes the mill’s viability,” Crete said.

LePage has a clear electoral goal here. Brookfield and Sappi have something to gain by this controversy becoming part of Maine’s political debate. No Maine governor wants a mill to close on their watch. But Mills still has had a big role in letting this battle go this far. It is not a purely invented issue and it could be a major vulnerability for her if it stretches out much longer.

For example, millworkers are deeply frustrated with the governor as the dispute blunts investment in the mill and makes for uncertainty in the ranks, said Justin Shaw, the president of the steelworkers union there.

He spoke to Mills at a recent Labor Day event and he said her message has been “the damn dam is going nowhere.” His membership is also skeptical of LePage over support for “right-to-work” legislation, but he sees the state slow-walking the permit process despite Mills’ stated support for the mill.

“Until we’ve got something in writing, where we can start getting the investors to invest their money in our mill, they’re just words,” Shaw said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...