SKOWHEGAN — Nine Maine state legislators toured three paper mills across the state Thursday, including in Madison and Skowhegan, as part of a fact-finding mission ahead of a pulp and paper summit scheduled for later this month.

The tour included stops at Skowhegan’s Sappi Fine Paper Somerset Mill and Madison Paper Industries in Madison, as well as Sappi’s Westbrook Mill.

“The reality is that there’s been a lot of news about the pulp and paper industry lately that isn’t good,” said Maine Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport. “This is an opportunity to reach out to the folks in the pulp and paper industry and find out what we’re doing right and what we can do better as a state government.”

The visits come ahead of a Nov. 17 Maine Pulp and Paper Association summit at which lawmakers, industry officials and experts will convene to discuss the state of Maine’s paper industry. Maine has lost more than 1,000 paper mill jobs in the last year from closures at mills in Bucksport and Old Town and layoffs in Jay and Lincoln.

“There is no doubt these are not your grandfather’s paper mills,” said Donna Cassese, chairwoman of the board of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, in a news release Thursday. “Times are changing and the new paradigm is competitive and complex. But the stories behind the headlines are powerful and heartening, especially for an industry that means so much to the livelihood of so many Maine citizens and communities.”

At the Skowhegan mill Thursday, legislators toured the facility’s wood lot and mill operations.

Tony Ouellette, managing director of the Somerset Mill, said the visit was an opportunity for mill officials and workers to share their strengths, as well as challenges, with the legislators.

The Skowhegan mill employs about 770 people. Ouellette said the biggest challenges the mill faces are wood costs and energy costs.

“Anything we can do to help with the energy costs, such as bringing more natural gas into New England, is helpful,” he said.

Sen. Rod Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, said the mills in both Skowhegan and Madison are critical to the local economy and acknowledged that energy costs are a challenge.

He said it is something lawmakers are working on addressing, in part through the 2013 Omnibus Energy Act, designed to encourage the expansion of natural gas pipeline into the state and increase funding for other energy efficient efforts.

Representatives from the Skowhegan and Madison mills and legislators are scheduled to gather Nov. 17 in Bangor for a Maine Pulp and Paper Association summit on the state of the paper industry. Both Thibodeau and Maine House Speaker Mark Eves are expected to speak on their findings from Thursday’s tours at the summit.

Andrew Lovely, an electrical and instrumentation technician at the Skowhegan mill, will also be one of four speakers in a “future leaders” showcase presenting innovation from young leaders in the paper industry. Kelsey Goldsmith, a spokesperson for the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, said she could not release details Thursday about what Lovely will be speaking about at the Nov. 17 summit, but said that it is good news for the Skowhegan mill.

Other issues that will be discussed include transportation infrastructure, tax rates and energy and wood costs. The summit also will address the status of a federal complaint Madison Paper Industries has filed against the Nova Scotian government alleging unfair subsidies to Canada’s Port Hawkesbury Paper. The mill says the subsidies have created unfair market conditions that are hurting the Madison mill and have led to production curtailments and temporary layoffs of employees.

“It’s a federal issue, but we did talk about it a little this morning, and (Madison mill officials) believe they are going to come out on top in that,” Thibodeau said. “It seems very apparent based on the decisions made at this point that they will come out on the right end of that, and it should help with their economic situation. They just want to have fair trade.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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