MADISON — Madison Paper Industries still isn’t connected to a natural gas pipeline, even after months of delays and a most recent estimate that the hook-up would happen by mid-March.
A top official at the paper company, which signed a contract with Summit Natural Gas of Maine in June, said the delays have been frustrating and costly. Madison Paper, which employs about 250 people and is the town’s largest taxpayer, is a key anchor customer of the $350 million gas project under construction throughout the Kennebec Valley.
“It’s disappointing that we did not have it for the winter heating season, to say the least,” Russ Drechsel, president and CEO of Madison Paper, said Monday.
Madison Paper originally was scheduled to be connected in November, but Summit’s construction of an area of pipeline in nearby Norridgewock came to a halt after a subcontractor on the project abruptly left. Schmid Pipeline Construction Inc. has since filed a lawsuit claiming it was forced to increase the workforce, working hours, materials and equipment to meet a greater workload than was outlined in its contract and without additional pay from Summit.
Summit has denied the allegations and the case is scheduled to go to trial in federal court later this year.
Drechsel would not comment on the delays’ financial effect on Madison Paper, but he said the gas company told him drilling problems in Norridgewock were to blame for the latest delay.
Asked for comment on the delay, Mike Duguay, Summit’s director of business development, issued a one-line statement: “We are systematically moving natural gas up through the Kennebec Valley and are working diligently to make the final connection in Norridgewock, which will complete the first phase of a multi-year project that will bring a lower-cost energy source to Madison.”
In February, representatives from Summit spoke with Madison residents at a public meeting about the potential of bringing natural gas to homes later this year. At the meeting, the Summit officials said Madison Paper Industries would be connected by early to mid-March.
Town officials in Madison and Norridgewock said they were understanding about the delays.
“I would have liked to have had it last fall, but I understand some of the issues,” said Madison Town Manager Dana Berry. “I think Summit has worked very hard to overcome some of those issues. They are certainly working hard to get here as soon as they can.”
He said there is some interest among residents in heating their homes with natural gas, and he expects that interest to grow when the gas becomes available.
In Norridgewock, a meeting between Summit officials and selectmen was added as a last-minute item on the agenda for Wednesday night’s selectmen’s meeting, Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said. Drilling into the ground to install the pipeline has been slowed by a large amount of ledge, or hard rock, Flewelling said. Main Street is the only part of Norridgewock where a main transmission line has not been laid, and it is necessary to connect to Madison, she said.
Flewelling said she hadn’t heard any updates about when Norridgewock residents might be able to connect to natural gas.
“We’ve had some difficulties, but recently our communication has increased and we’re excited about that,” Flewelling said. “It’s one of those projects where the best of intentions doesn’t always get the job done. I know they’re working hard and dealing with conditions under the soil, where you don’t always have a grasp of what those are and it can be difficult.”
Although Drechsel said he is disappointed that Madison Paper is not yet connected, he also said the company is “still looking forward to being connected to the pipeline.”
“The advantages of burning natural gas are the cost savings and a lesser environmental impact,” he said. “We’re looking forward to achieving both of those targets.”
Among Summit’s current commercial customers are the city of Augusta, Regional School Unit 11 in Gardiner and Inland Hospital in Waterville, where natural gas began flowing last week. The company also has contracts to connect Sappi Fine Paper in Skowhegan, Huhtamaki in Fairfield and Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan.
The contracts with those businesses all have estimated connection dates for later this year.
In total, the $350 million project will include a 68-mile transmission pipeline stretching from Pittston to Madison and more than 300 miles of distribution lines throughout central Maine. Proponents of the project say it will lower heating costs for more than 700 businesses and 4,500 individual customers in the coming year.
Maine Natural Gas, of Brunswick, is building a 21-mile pipeline from Windsor to Augusta and has contracts to serve state buildings in Augusta and MaineGeneral Medical Center’s new hospital in north Augusta.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 [email protected]