AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill Wednesday that would amend state law in hopes of restarting the former Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket and putting as many as 200 people back to work.

The House and Senate votes on L.D. 1792, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, came after virtually no debate, although the bill was heavily debated in committee last month, before it was amended significantly.

The original version, introduced in February, would have forced Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners, the mill’s power provider and state’s largest producer of hydroelectric power, to pay Great Northern Paper, a subsidiary of the New Hampshire-based private equity firm Cate Street Capital, the profits it has made from selling excess power since the mill’s closure in January.

The amended bill includes no language to force Brookfield to share its profits. Instead, it would encourage the two companies to reach an agreement on sharing revenue from wholesale sales of the excess power. It also calls for a one-time exemption to an existing law that otherwise would prohibit any profit-sharing as long as the mill is shut down.

Stanley said the bill offers the best chance of getting the mill running again and restoring the majority of jobs lost.

“The fates of Millinocket and East Millinocket are linked to the mills,” Stanley said. “Without this bill, there’s little hope of restarting the East Millinocket mill. Even with it, there’s no concrete assurance that it will. I sincerely hope that we can give the workers, their families and their communities a fighting chance.”

Because of an arrangement that allowed Cate Street to buy power at a reduced rate, Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners has increased its profits since the mill closed by selling excess power on the wholesale market.

Harold Pachios, the attorney for Brookfield Renewable, has called the original bill a “gun to the head” of his client and argued that it would have been unconstitutional because it would interfere with a contract between two private companies. He said it also would have violated the Federal Power Act, which governs the regulation of hydroelectric dams in the U.S.

Still, the amended bill will allow Cate Street to cut back on paper production a few times a year when electricity is in high demand and benefit from the sale of the excess power to the regional grid, a practice known as “load shedding.” Current law allows short-term load shedding but prevents the mill owner from benefiting from the sale of power in the event of a “paper mill closing.”

The amended bill makes explicit that state law allows the mill owner to benefit from short-term load shedding, and that the Legislature would like to see that happen, but it stops short of requiring Brookfield to enter into any revenue-sharing agreement with Cate Street. Stanley’s bill also provides Cate Street with a one-time exemption so it could benefit from a load-shedding agreement even though the mill is currently closed, provided that it reaches an agreement with Brookfield.

LD 1792 now goes to Gov. Paul LePage.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or:

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Twitter: @PPHEricRussell