Why the Sappi Mill has become a flashpoint in the race for governor

The paper industry has long had both a practical and symbolic hold on Maine politics despite its dwindling brick-and-mortar presence. But that hadn’t been a central talking point in this year’s gubernatorial race until last week.

Seeking to emphasize the economy in his campaign, former Governor Paul LePage held a press conference to criticize the Department of Environmental Protection’s impending denial of a key water quality certificate. water for the Shawmut Dam outside of Waterville. The certificate is crucial for the dam to be re-approved at the federal level and subject to multi-year battle between Governor Janet Mills, environmental groups and the owner of the dam, Brookfield Renewable. A refusal will further delay this process.

LePage and incumbent Mills quickly swapped accusations, with the Mills campaign saying LePage employed “scare tactics.” The Republican Governors Association went on to accuse Mills of “being caught in the act of lying”, although the letter she is referring to is from August 2020, a year before the the governor has returned his firm position on the removal of the dam in an open letter to employees of the Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan.

This shows the influence of Sappi, one of the few remaining paper mill operators in the state and a major player in the declining heritage industry, on dam renewal policy. His efforts at adapt came as the company cut jobs in recent years. Even though the industry is expected to shrink, the plant’s economic importance to its community makes it a powerful ally for those who oppose changes to dams – and future governors should exercise caution ahead of the election. .

“(Industry) doesn’t have the political clout it had 60 to 70 years ago,” said Michael Hillard, a recently retired economics professor at the University of Southern Maine and author of ” Shredding Paper”, which examined the rise and fall of the paper industry. “But I think they’re still seen as important institutions, even if we’re down to seven or eight sites.”

“…And I think political leaders want to be seen to some extent as being on the side of preserving the industry, as it is.”

The mills had previously recommended removal of the dam as one of the best options to help restore endangered Atlantic salmon to one of the few places where they can spawn. She has critical Brookfield Renewable for not working with the state to find a solution in the past.

The tone changed after Sappi said removal of the dam could result in closure of the Skowhegan plant site. Mills had a reported an encounter with Sappi and published a letter to the editor saying she would not allow the plant to close. Although the state continued to strive to achieve high standards of fish passage — which dam proponents say are too difficult to meet and may inadvertently cause the dam to close — he hasn’t floated the idea of ​​removing the dam since Mills’ open letter.

The entrance to the Sappi Mill in Skowhegan is seen March 9, 2016. Photo courtesy of The Morning Sentinel.

Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources, said removal of the dam was “no longer on the table” and added that there are other options that could help achieve the crossing goals of the fish.

But LePage may abandon those efforts entirely if reelected. His spokesman, Brent Littlefield, said LePage is happy with Brookfield’s fish passage proposals allowing about 96% of Atlantic salmon to go upstream, compared to the 99% sought by Maine.

The former Republican governor appeared with local lawmakers on Monday but without Sappi or Brookfield representatives, who he thinks might not want to upset Mills. He declined to discuss any other conversations he might have had with them.

“We would just say that the public records speak for themselves and Governor Paul LePage is VERY concerned about these jobs,” Littlefield said.

The paper industry has been involved in some of Maine’s most charged political hot spots. The International paper strike In the 1980’s changed the labor movement here. Mills, then Attorney General, represented paper mills and towns against the Penobscot Nation in a bitter legal dispute more who is allowed regulate hunting and fishing on the tribe’s namesake river, a matter that was federal appeals court.

Hillard said the industry’s influence was at its height in the early 20th century, when it dominated control of the rivers and company officials were appointed to powerful political positions in Augusta. Industry’s influence waned somewhat in the 1960s and 1970s, when environmental factions began to gain political traction and laws like Maine Senator Edmund Muskie’s Clean Water Act came into play. .

But Sappi still has strong allies who came to its defense when the water quality permit denial plans were made public. The Maine Chamber of Commerce called the denial draft in a July centralmaine.com letter “self-inflicted economic harm”. Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, has strongly criticized the state’s approach to dams and Senate Speaker Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, introduced a bill after the first denial of state water quality certificate.

Perhaps one of his most important allies is Brookfield himself. The company cited the possible impact on the paper mill at the top of its rebuttal to the DEP’s certificate denial, saying the state should be aware of its connection to the economy of the lower Kennebec River.

A company spokesperson said her relationship with Sappi began long before the new license and she tries to coordinate on issues when the two might be affected.

“You really can’t ignore when more than 100 jobs could be affected,” the spokesperson said. “It’s going to be part of the conversation even though it’s not part of our business.”

Sappi, for her part, appears to be staying out of the political fray. Spokesman Peter Steele, who worked for LePage, declined to comment beyond saying that Sappi is seeking federal and state agencies to expedite the licensing process.

The attention comes from the fact that the pulp and paper industry has shrunk faster here than nationally, according at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Maine lost 19% of its industrial jobs from 2015-2019 and another 11% in 2019-2020 alone. Another 17% is expected over the next four years. Six paper product locations firm between 2008 and 2019; only about nine remain, according to the Forest Products Council.

Yet the industry has far-reaching effects on Maine’s economy. In addition to supporting local restaurants and gas stations, a paper and pulp mill is also connected to Maine’s forestry industry through its wood product needs. The industry as a whole contributed $8.1 billion to the state’s economy in 2019, according to a study of the Maine Forest Products Council.

Sappi has strong economic importance to Skowhegan. The plant represents more than 700 jobs and accounts for 39% of the city’s tax base in 2021 – still a significant share although it represents barely 47% six years ago.

With such a reach, it’s no surprise politicians are rushing to protect the mill’s future, said Pat Strauch, chief executive of the Forest Products Council.

“When you remove a link like this, it affects everyone,” he said.

For factory workers like Justin Shaw, executive vice-president of United Steelworkers Local 4-9, the political attention is not on the anxiety workers are feeling during the debate. He knows that Sappi could withdraw its investments in the plant if its water supply is too depleted. Neither political party has assuaged those concerns, he said.

“It affects how you spend your money,” he said of the Shawmut dam debate. “It’s in everyone’s head.”

Caitlin Andrews covers state government and elections in Maine for The Maine Monitor. Contact her with other story ideas: [email protected]