Cutler says state should buy Verso’s energy plant at Bucksport

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PORTLAND, Maine — Eliot Cutler has called and written to the CEO of Memphis-based Verso Paper, asking for the company to sell its Bucksport mill to a buyer that would continue to make paper there.

If not, the independent gubernatorial candidate said that as governor he would promote the state purchasing the energy assets to provide low-cost power to businesses at a new industrial park near the mill slated for closure Dec. 1.

“If I am elected governor next month, and if it becomes apparent that there is no sound opportunity to continue the operation of the paper mill, I will want to discuss with you a Maine Energy Finance Authority purchase of the energy plant,” Cutler wrote to Verso Paper president David Paterson, referring to a state financing agency that he has proposed creating.

“MEFA would own and oversee the operation of the plant,” Cutler said.

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Paterson was surprised by Cutler’s offer and said that the publicly traded company has for months been considering sale of the power plant that employs about 70 people, according to Cutler. The mill, which uses power from natural gas-fired and biomass generation on site, employs about 500 people.

The Bucksport paper mill’s closure is the third in Maine so far this year, resulting in the cumulative loss of more than 1,000 paper mill jobs.

For that reason, the mill’s closure has become a topic of discussion for all three candidates for governor. Democrat Mike Michaud last week unveiled a six-point plan to help the state’s paper mills, and Republican Gov. Paul LePage said that his administration is helping to find a buyer for the Bucksport property.

Cutler took jabs at both candidates in his remarks Monday.

“As governor, I will have failed miserably if a company like Verso shuts down a facility like the Bucksport mill and my only response is that I was surprised or that I plan to hold a summit,” he said.

LePage said Verso did not give him advance notice of the planned closure. His administration called an emergency meeting with his economic development staff and rearranged his schedule to travel to the Bangor region last week after Verso’s closure announcement. Michaud’s plan included holding a summit of industry leaders.

Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for the Michaud campaign, said the Democrat’s plan also includes proposals to work with other states to address regional energy issues, creating a reserve fund for municipalities to deal with unexpected closures, establishing stronger laws enforcing economic development and job creation promises from companies getting tax breaks and supporting the diversification of power generation resources in Maine by signing long-term contracts with renewable energy sources.

“U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud has proposed a real plan to help Maine’s manufacturing sector. Candidate Eliot Cutler has written a letter,” Reinholt said in a letter.

Alex Willette, a spokesman for LePage’s campaign, said both Michaud and Cutler were turning the workers at the Bucksport mill into “political pawns” to make a “baseless attack” on LePage.

“Gov. LePage and his administration have been working day and night to ensure the employees that are effected by the impending closure are connected with the Department of Labors rapid response unit to help find new employment opportunities, and ensure they are taken care of during this time of uncertainty,” Willette said in a prepared statement.

Willette also said LePage was looking for potential buyers for the mill or for other alternatives that might keep the facility open.

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