LePage and Mills trade barbs on roadblocks and paper mill jobs

A battle over a dam in the Kennebec River has now become a campaign issue in Maine’s gubernatorial race as former Republican Gov. Paul LePage accuses his opponent in November of endangering hundreds of jobs in the stationery.

But a representative for Governor Janet Mills accused her predecessor of “scare tactics and said the incumbent Democrat was committed to preserving both jobs and endangered fish.

For several years, the owner of the Shawmut Dam located between Skowhegan and Fairfield has been battling with environmentalists and the state of Maine over how best to protect endangered Atlantic salmon and other fish in the Kennebec River. In a sign that the post-Labor Day campaign season has officially begun, LePage and a dozen supporters gathered in Augusta on Monday to accuse Mills of dishonesty when it comes to protecting more than 700 jobs at a paper mill in Sappi just above the dam.

“That’s my view folks: She’s saying she doesn’t want to shut down the plant, but she wants the blockades removed,” said LePage, a former paper mill worker and businessman. who is seeking a third non-consecutive term as governor. “You can’t run the factory without the dams. That’s the problem. So she speaks on both sides. And I’m the only one who speaks French here.”

LePage accused the Mills administration — specifically the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Department of Marine Resources — of blocking attempts by dam owner Brookfield Renewable US to renew Shawmut’s license with federal regulators. LePage also said that the Mills administration was “openly plotting the removal of the dam, resulting in the subsequent closure of the Sappi mill – an absolute economic disaster for the state of Maine.”

But Mills’ campaign countered that it was LePage and his allies who were dishonest. In a statement, campaign spokesman Scott Ogden said LePage “chose to lie to the people of Maine today by falsely saying that the state requires the Shawmut Dam to be removed” and that the he former Republican governor used “scare tactics” in suggesting that Mills wanted to shut down the Sappi plant.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Ogden said. “Governor Mills grew up not far from Skowhegan. She understands how essential the Sappi plant is to Skowhegan, the surrounding region and the state of Maine. It provides well-paying jobs for Maine residents and is an important tax base for local residents. As one of the last remaining pulp mills in the state, it is also an integral part of the supply chain of our forest economy, supporting landowners, loggers, and truckers, among others. As the Governor has said before, the closure of this plant – and the resulting ripple effect in the industry, including job losses – would not be acceptable to her, and she will not allow let that happen. His administration’s commitment to the plant is clear and unwavering.

Shawmut is one of four dams owned by Brookfield Renewable US along the Kennebec River. And it became the latest flashpoint in the decades-long debate in Maine about how to restore habitat for Atlantic salmon and other sea fish while preserving the jobs and tax revenue that depend on the dams. Maine is home to the last significant populations of wild Atlantic salmon in the United States, but the number of fish that return each year to Maine’s rivers is only a tiny fraction of the massive historic returns before the dams took over. prevent their passage upstream to spawn.

Environmental groups have had considerable success removing dams in Maine, including the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta. A coalition worked with another hydroelectric company to remove two large dams on the Penobscot River while bypassing a third. But the fight over Shawmut’s fate has been far more contentious as Sappi North America says its Skowhegan paper mill could not operate if the dam were removed and water levels dropped significantly.

Rep. Joel Stetkis, a Canaan Republican whose voters include Sappi workers, said Sappi and Brookfield account for more than 40% of tax revenue that goes to Skowhegan.

“If this dam removal continues, the economic ripple effect will be devastating for our region,” Stetkis said.

Brookfield has proposed a new fish lift to help salmon and other species bypass the dam. State regulators and conservationists say that would not adequately protect any attempts by endangered salmon to pass upstream or downstream, however. Environmental groups, meanwhile, would like to remove Shawmut and other dams to restore fish habitat. All parties have filed lawsuits and countersuits on the matter.

The owner of the dam, Brookfield Renewable, is currently applying to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to renew the Shawmut Dam license for another 50 years. FERC and the National Marine Fisheries Service are currently studying the environmental impact of the Shawmut Dam, including its effects on endangered Atlantic salmon. And in July, the Maine Department of Environmental Quality issued a draft order denying Brookfield water quality certification to Shawmut while this federal study is underway.

“A denial without prejudice would not change the current operational requirements of the dam, nor would it necessitate the removal of the dam as some commentators assert,” DEP spokesperson and deputy commissioner David Madore said in a statement. “Brookfield should file a new application (water quality certification) with the department to continue the federal permitting process. The ministry looks forward to working with Brookfield as it continues to refine its license renewal proposal and works to submit an updated and complete certification application to the ministry.

In a letter to DEP officials, Brookfield attorney Sharon Newman called the denial based on potential future changes “entirely speculative” and accused the department “of acting arbitrarily and capriciously” in imposing on the Shawmut project requirements that have not been imposed on other projects. .