MADISON — Following six months of delays, natural gas is flowing to the UPM Madison paper mill.

“I can confirm that with a smile,” UPM Madison President and CEO Russ Drechsel said Thursday. “It was Monday night at around 7 p.m. we started flowing gas to our boilers at the mill. It was a great achievement to have gas delivered to the pipeline to Madison.”

While there were delays with pipeline construction in Norridgewock, the connection is the final link in what Summit Natural Gas of Maine calls its 68-mile steel backbone transmission pipeline from Pittston to Madison.

Drechsel said the paper mill on the Kennebec River in Madison made conversions from oil to natural gas to fire the mill boilers 18 months ago and needed only the final connection to complete the conversion.

“We’ve been anxiously waiting for that fabulous moment, and we continue since Monday to burn natural gas in our power boilers delivered through the pipeline,” he said. “There is a cost savings to that and a considerable favorable environmental impact to that, including reducing our environmental footprint.”

The Madison connection is an important one, Summit president Mike Minkos said.

“This is a significant milestone for our company and a historic opportunity for the Kennebec Valley,” Minkos said Thursday. “We are very grateful to all the people in the communities that supported the first year of our construction.”

Minkos said more than 60 Summit employees and 700 construction workers helped to make the project a reality. Summit’s 2014 construction program will expand natural gas service to residential and commercial customers as well, he said.

“We want as many people as possible to experience the positive economic and environmental benefits of natural gas,” Minkos said.

Norridgewock Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said the pipeline delays in her town were frustrating, but the work is done except for some roadway patching to be finished later this spring. Summit had been working on completing underground drilling in Norridgewock since last fall, although construction came to a halt for more than a month after a subcontractor abruptly left.

“The problem that they had was under Mill Stream and underneath the railroad tracks on Main Street. Where they were drilling to put the last stretch of pipe in they kept hitting ledge, and it was taking them longer than they expected,” Flewelling said Thursday. “They crossed the river last fall.”

The company hopes the $350 million pipeline eventually will distribute natural gas to 17 central Maine communities. The transmission pipeline took less than a year to build and completes the first year of the company’s multi-year Kennebec Valley project, according to a company statement.

Construction for 2014 is set to begin in May. The company plans to install 85 miles of additional distribution pipeline in the Kennebec Valley region and 66 miles in the towns of Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth.

In the Kennebec Valley, residential neighborhoods will be hooked up to natural gas in Randolph, Gardiner, Hallowell, Waterville, Fairfield and Madison, Minkos said. That project should be done by November, he said.

In total, the project will include a 68-mile transmission pipeline stretching up the Kennebec River Valley 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.

Summit’s competitor, 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.

In total, more than 1,800 residential customers already have signed up with Summit for natural gas service.

Among Summit’s current customers are the city of Augusta, Regional School Unit 11 in Gardiner and Inland Hospital in Waterville, where natural gas began flowing in March. 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 later this year.

The second phase of the Kennebec Valley project is expected to begin this month, with distribution lines throughout several communities and the service lines that will connect homes and businesses with natural gas.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367 [email protected]Twitter: @Doug_Harlow