The Pixelle Specialty Solutions paper mill stands against a cloudy sky in Jay on Wednesday, Sept. 28. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Brad Farrin of Norridgewock represents District 3 in the Maine Senate. He is the Senate Republican lead for the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee and the Transportation Committee.

The recent announcement that Pixelle Specialty Papers will close the mill in Jay has already sent shockwaves across the forest products industry. Set for the first quarter of next year, the closure will affect about 230 employees — some of whom have invested an entire career at the plant.

When International Paper (IP) first built the mill in 1965, I was barely a year old. The Androscoggin Mill had the best technology available at the time and employed 1,500 at its peak. When IP divested its coated paper division and sold the mill to Verso Paper Holdings in 2006, 1,000 people still worked there. The sale was notable because the Androscoggin Mill had been the only one in Maine to never change hands since it was built.

When Verso filed for bankruptcy in 2016, the workforce had already shrunk to around 400 after the No. 2 and No. 3 machines were idled. Yet an investment of $17 million in 2018 brought 190 workers back, a level that held steady until the mill’s digester was destroyed in an explosion just two months after the mill was sold by Verso to its current owner in 2020.

Since then, the Jay mill has essentially been in limbo, a shell of its former glory. Insurance money came and went; and the digester was not rebuilt to ensure the mill could be financially viable. This lack of investment and the need to buy outside pulp obviously led to the mill’s demise.

And indications show that Gov. Janet Mills is pushing Sappi’s mill in Skowhegan toward similar decisions about financial viability.

With the closure of the Jay mill, Sappi will be only one of five major mills remaining in the state. Brookfield White Pine Hydro, LLC, which operates the Shawmut hydroelectric dam in the Kennebec River that provides power and intake water to the Sappi Mill, filed for relicensure of the dam from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in January 2020 to continue operating the dam and install a new upstream fish lift.

Since then, it’s been quite apparent that Mills has allowed the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to either jeopardize or prevent its relicensure. I sounded the alarm about this last year when DMR wanted to recommend removing two dams in the state to hopefully sway FERC’s relicensing process regarding Shawmut. I then tried to introduce legislation in 2021 that would have reined in DMR, but that effort was shot down by the majority. However, I was able to aid the passage of LD 1979 earlier this year to at least give the Legislature more oversight of the process.

Then on July 29, the Maine DEP issued a draft denial of Brookfield’s request for the required water quality certification for the dam. Although they reapplied on Sept. 22, the July denial jeopardizes the dam and mill itself.

Mills says she wants to move the state toward renewable energy, yet her agencies support the destruction of an existing source of hydropower generation and potentially thousands of jobs along with it — all for three to five fish per year. This is hypocritical. And just like with the mill in Jay, Sappi will at some point calculate that the risk of investment far outweighs the benefit of keeping the mill viable – some fear it’s already happening.

The permit denial for the Shawmut dam is simply the latest waypoint along that path since FERC won’t issue the license or any proposed changes without the water certification by Maine DEP. The Mills Administration was accused by Brookfield of using that fact as a circular delay tactic and it is jeopardizing the mill and the rest of the forest products sector that contributes an estimated $8.1 billion to our state economy and employs over 31,000 people.

Instead, Mills should pick up the phone today and have Maine DEP approve Brookfield’s clean water certification to allow the process to continue. Anything less and she leaves thousands of Mainers unnecessarily in limbo.