SKOWHEGAN — Full speed ahead.

The company laying a section of the Summit Natural Gas pipeline will begin working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, starting today to link Sappi Fine Paper Co. to the main gas line under construction in Fairfield.

Sappi, one of the state’s largest employers, is among a handful of anchor tenants that made the $350 million gas pipeline possible in the Kennebec Valley.

Inland Hospital in Waterville and Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan recently joined Sappi, UPM Madison and Huhtamaki Packaging in Fairfield and Waterville as anchor tenants. In July, Summit also was selected by the city of Augusta to provide natural gas service to the city’s municipal facilities and schools.

The main line is expected to reach the UPM Madison paper mill by Nov. 1.

There are about 800 employees at the Sappi Somerset mill, including about 170 salaried workers, the company said earlier this year. The company is listed as the 17th-largest private employer in Maine when its 1,001 to 1,500 employees statewide are factored in, according to the Maine Department of Labor’s most recent statistics.

The company ranks just behind Cianbro Corp. in Somerset County on the employer list. Each is listed as having 501 to 1,000 employees.

Skowhegan Town Manager John Doucette Jr. said he and other town officials have met with Summit officials several times, so the speed of the project was not surprising.

“It’s exciting to see the natural gas line finally arrive in Skowhegan after two years of discussions,” Doucette said Wednesday. “I think everyone is looking forward to having another option for heating fuel.”

Summit Natural Gas is competing with another company, Maine Natural Gas, in laying pipe and lining up customers in central Maine.

Rick Jackson, senior project superintendent for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons construction company, said round-the-clock work for the Summit project to Sappi will continue about six weeks until the all the pipe is laid.

Work began Wednesday at the logging truck entrance to Sappi on Varney Road in Skowhegan. It will run from Varney Road south on Route 104 and eventually will link to the main line near the Melody Ranch dance hall on Route 139 in Fairfield.

Crews from K&K construction had laid pipe by Wednesday along Route 139 almost into downtown Norridgewock.

“We started in the log yard yesterday; it’s going all the way into the Sappi paper mill,” Jackson said. “Then we’re going down the right-hand side of the road on Route 104 all the way down to that dance hall.”

He said he has six companies subcontracting the pipeline work, employing 30 to 40 people in two 12-hour shifts. Area residents were alerted by mail about the round-the-clock work. Jackson said his crews will drill through ledge and rock and will not be blasting.

He said working day and night speeds up the job significantly.

“It’s just less of an inconvenience,” he said Wednesday. “Over the long haul, it could easily double the amount of time it would take to actually get that footprint in if we didn’t. If we run 24s around-the-clock, we don’t have to shut down and start back up, take the lane closures down. It may be inconvenient for that six weeks, but it could easily be three months.”

Jackson said crews can lay 600 feet of 8-inch high-pressure pipeline in a day working single shifts. Working double shifts, crews can lay as much as 1,500 feet a day.

Construction crews totaling more than 400 workers are working in Augusta and from Pittston to Madison on the installation of 68 miles of steel pipe and 66 miles of plastic distribution pipe in various communities throughout the region.

“The opportunity to utilize natural gas is essential to maintain the competitive cost position of our Somerset mill and is another example of our investment in the state of Maine,” Mark Gardner, Sappi president and chief executive officer, said earlier this year.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367
dharlow@mainetoday.com