A sign warns drivers of periodic blasting in the nearby quarries near the Dragon Cement plant in Thomaston in this March 2011 photo. Credit: John Clarke Russ / BDN

The failed 2021 midcoast gas line project had a hand in the closure of Thomaston’s Dragon Cement.

Broadly, it was the high cost of fuel and transportation in New England, Roberto Polit, vice president of operations for Giant Cement, Dragon’s parent company, said. One of the contributing factors was the failure of the 2021 gas line project that was supposed to bring natural gas to the midcoast.

Dragon’s failure here runs counter to a relatively good outlook for its industry nationally. Expert Market Research projects the U.S. cement market to grow through 2028, although Polit noted transportation and energy costs are much higher here than in other parts of the country.

“Unfortunately, we are far away from our bigger markets, and it takes quite an effort and resources to get our products there,” Polit said.

Summit Natural Gas of Maine was slated to bring natural gas to Waldo and Knox counties with a $90 million project by 2022, expanding its natural gas customers by 6,500 people. But due to pushback from the region, the project was halted in 2021.

That caught up to Knox County with Giant releasing plans on Wednesday to retire the plant by 2025. Polit said fuel was too expensive to maintain the plant. As a result, the company had to import fuel. Gov. Janet Mills noted to Maine Public on Thursday that the plant was burning trash for fuel, lamenting that the region had not gotten the gas pipeline.

The trash being burned includes asphalt shingles, post-consumer carpet and plastics, according to reporting by the PenBay Pilot. Dragon wanted to burn the materials for its high-temperature kiln, though some of it would be turned into cement. Dragon requested the licenses to do so in 2019, several years before the plans for the gas pipeline.

That trash being burned wasn’t as harmful to the environment as petroleum coke, which is what it was using before the alternative fuel, according to the PenBay Pilot. Dragon still supplements its waste burning with imported fuel including petroleum coke, which emits more greenhouse gases than raw coal when it is burned.

Earlier this year, Dragon was found to have committed 33 federal health and safety violations, including storage of gas cylinders and safe removal of flammable spilled liquids, the Maine Monitor reported. Dragon also committed air emission violations on several occasions from 2013 to 2019. In 2016, it exceeded its ammonia output on multiple occasions, and other years it had carbon monoxide violations.

Polit said the recent safety and environmental violations Dragon recently faced had nothing to do with the closing.

Though production is set to idle in 2025, Polit said Dragon will continue to provide cement services throughout the Northeast until closure. Mills, a Democrat, said last week that she wants to speak with the company to get further details on their plans since the cement Dragon produces is an important part of the state and regional economy.

“There aren’t any easy answers,” Thomaston Select Board Chair Diane Giese said.

Jules Walkup reports on the midcoast and is a Report for America corps member. They graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism and moved to Maine from Tampa, Florida in July 2023.