Gov. Janet Mills said Thursday she “will not allow” the Sappi Somerset Mill in Skowhegan to close, in response to concerns being raised by the owner of a nearby dam that’s up for federal relicensing.

In an “open letter to Sappi employees,” which Mills shared with the Morning Sentinel on Thursday, the governor said she had called a meeting Tuesday with the senior leadership of the Sappi paper mill “to let them know that the mill isn’t going anywhere,” and “now I want you to hear it directly from me too.”

“The Sappi mill is critical to Skowhegan, the surrounding region, and the state of Maine, providing good-paying jobs to Maine people and an important tax base for local residents,” Mills said in the letter. “As one of the last remaining pulp mills in the state, it is also an integral component of our forest economy supply chain, supporting landowners, loggers, and truckers, among others. Closure of this mill, and the resulting ripple effect across the industry, including job losses, would not be acceptable to me — and I will not allow it to happen. My administration’s commitment to the mill is clear and unwavering.”

The concerns about the paper mill come amid regulatory review of dams along the Kennebec River, including the 100-year-old Shawmut hydroelectric dam in the Benton-Fairfield area, as part of a complicated relicensing process by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Among the considerations of regulators are allowing a certain amount of upstream passage of fish such as the endangered Atlantic Salmon.

The Shawmut Dam on the Kennebec River in the Shawmut area of Fairfield is seen on July 13. The Shawmut Dam impoundment is the only source of water for Sappi’s Somerset Mill. Removing the dam could lower the water levels to a point that the mill’s intake would not be functional wastewater couldn’t be properly discharged. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

Last week, Maine Department of Environmental Protection issued a draft order denying the Shawmut Dam’s application for water quality certification. The review found “the dam meets all water quality requirements but it was the (Department of Marine Resources) fish passage recommendations that the DEP relied on for its denial.”

The Shawmut Dam impoundment is the only source of water for Sappi’s Somerset Mill, which uses use an average of 28 million gallons per day for processing, cooling, and fire protection, according to Brookfield Renewable U.S., which owns the Shawmut Dam. The mill is also permitted to discharge a certain amount of wastewater and process water to the impounded Kennebec River upstream of Shawmut Dam.

Removing the dam could lower the water levels to a point that the mill’s intake would not be functional wastewater couldn’t be properly discharged, Brookfield Renewable said.

‘UNACCEPTABLE OUTCOME’

Miranda Kessel, manager of stakeholder relations at Brookfield Renewable, said that the proposed fish passage intended to pass at least 96% of Atlantic salmon upstream and 97% downstream. The Maine Department of Marine Resources has set the standard to 99%, which Kessel said is around a three- to five-fish difference.

David Madore, communications director at Maine DEP, said that Brookfield withdrew their application for a water quality certification last Thursday, eliminating the need for Maine DEP to issue a final decision on that application. Brookfield will now be submitting a new application “to further address the fish passage issues raised by the Department of Marine Resources, and DEP will have one year from receipt of the new application to issue a decision,” Madore said.

Officials at Brookfield said in a statement that they plan to submit a new water quality certification application within 60 days. This will include “the most recent fish passage specifications and other operational enhancements for the Shawmut Project as well as additional analysis performed after the initial application.”

“We are confident that our updated submission will clearly demonstrate that the Shawmut Project meets all water quality requirements,” Brookfield said in the statement.

Madore said “many assumptions were made by certain parties to conclude that denial of the certification would result in removal of the dam and that removal would result in closure of the mill.”

The DEP “will be evaluating what effect various changes to accommodate fish passage at the dam would actually have on the mill’s intake and discharge, and will work with Sappi to address any concerns with Brookfield’s new application,” Madore said Thursday. “Closure of the mill would be an unacceptable outcome.”

MILL CONCERNS

Following the letter from Mills, Brookfield released a statement Thursday afternoon saying that they were “pleased to read of the governor’s willingness to meet to discuss the future of the Shawmut dam and our three lower Kennebec facilities.”

“We not only stand ready to meet with the governor, but we have been actively seeking such a meeting,” Kessel said in the statement. “We believe that the governor’s intentions regarding the four lower Kennebec facilities are, and have been, clear.”

Even so, Kessel added that there are consequences to the removal of dams, “whether accomplished through a directed removal or through imposition of unrealistic operational standards like the governor’s proposed 99% fish passage standard.”

In her letter Thursday, Mills said that politicians and Brookfield have “wrongly suggested that the state is requiring the removal of the Shawmut Dam, going so far as to employ scare tactics and to suggest that my administration wants to close the mill.”

Following the draft denial last week, several groups spoke up to state leadership expressing their concern from the relicensing of the dam. In a letter Tuesday, Maine Senate Republicans sent a letter to Mills, saying that the state is heading toward an “inevitable outcome” with the relicensing of the dam that will result in the closure of Sappi Fine Paper.

“Numerous times, Sappi officials have made it clear that the drop in water level at their mill that would result from the removal of the Shawmut Dam would render their mill inoperable, forcing them to close it permanently and abandon their enormous investment,” the Senate Republicans wrote.

Christine Almand, town manager of Skowhegan, said Tuesday that she had been contacted by a Sappi representative regarding the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s draft denial of water quality certification for the Shawmut Dam and “I do share his concerns about the economic effects of dam removal.” Almand also said she had met with local lawmakers about these concerns.

The Shawmut Dam on the Kennebec River in the Shawmut area of Fairfield on July 13. The Shawmut Dam impoundment is the only source of water for Sappi’s Somerset Mill. Removing the dam could lower the water levels to a point that the mill’s intake would not be functional wastewater couldn’t be properly discharged. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Sappi Paper is not only responsible for 40% of Skowhegan’s tax base, but its impact goes beyond its 735 employees as other industries work alongside the mill, Almand said. She added that the issue has been on the minds of Skowhegan officials since January and officials have had “serious concerns about our community’s economic future and property impacts” among other consequences.

The recent draft denial did not alleviate any of those concerns, she said.

“From the very beginning, we have asked that all potential impacts be considered — financial and environmental,” Almand said. “There should be a balance. Improved fish passage is definitely necessary, and I believe that can be accomplished by all parties working together productively and cooperatively.”

Following the letter from Mills, Almand said that she applauds the governor “for acknowledging that Sappi is critical to the state and that a solution for fish passage in order to protect the dam is possible.”

Mills says it’s not necessary to remove the Shawmut Dam in order to allow fish to pass through successfully, as a natural fish passage is a method “that would protect the dam and support revival of Atlantic salmon.”

“Brookfield owns the dam and they must play a constructive role in protecting the mill and improving prospects for fish passage to meet state and federal standards,” Mills wrote in her letter to Sappi. “I am calling on them to come to the table to work in good faith to improve this situation, not to engage in fear-mongering of local communities.”

Sean Wallace, managing director of the Sappi Somerset Mill, said in a statement Thursday that the company “appreciates the recent expressions of support of the Somerset Mill from the Mills administration, lawmakers and members of the community.”

“We are cautiously optimistic that the relevant agencies and Brookfield can reach a speedy resolution of the water quality certification issue so that any uncertainty around the future of the Shawmut Dam and the Somerset Mill can be put to rest,” Wallace said in the statement.

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