Environmental regulators sue to force cleanup of closed Greenwood mill

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PARIS — A former woodworking company once heralded for reviving a dying industry is being sued by state regulators for discharging asbestos into the atmosphere after the Greenwood business went belly up.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection filed a land use citation and complaint in 11th District Court in South Paris against the defunct Saunders Bros. at Locke Mills LLC for failing to clean up their factory in Greenwood. 

Regulators are asking the court to force the owner to hire a licensed contractor to clean up and close the 26.63-acre mill complex at 256 Mill St. in Locke Mills, and assess fines between $100 and $10,000 per complaint for each day the violations have occurred.

The lawsuit, which also named owner Louise Jonaitis and Lafreniere Holdings I LLC, also defunct, was filed by DEP attorney Laura Welles by June 22. 

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The 13-count complaint alleges that Jonaitis violated multiple laws regulating how hazardous materials — including asbestos — were managed, failed to tell environmental regulators the facility had closed and hired unlicensed contractors to fix the problem despite six notifications of violations between 2012 and 2015.

During a 2012 inspection, department staff found the facility was generating other hazardous wastes such as solvents, paint thinners and lights containing mercury with an expired license and failed to label and properly store them or notify regulators.

In April 2014, inspectors found more than 400 feet of piping containing asbestos had been extracted from the facility by an unlicensed contractor, covered with a tarp and left outside on a concrete pad. Similar materials were found inside the main production building and a boiler house, both of which were demolished by the same unlicensed contractor in violation of the law. By November 2014, the piping had been removed, but not the boiler building. 

Jonaitis told inspectors she could not complete the cleanup because she ran out of money.

According to the lawsuit, the company didn’t have a license to discharge asbestos. Additionally, the complaint states that the company violated environmental laws by failing to clean up boiler ash and other wood products that mingled with stormwater and drained into the Alder River.

Greenwood Code Enforcement Officer Joelle Corey-Whitman said there’s also evidence water from a broken seal flowed over pipes in a pit, down to a floor drain and out into the river. 

Messages left with attorneys for both sides were not returned. The phone for the Greenwood mill was disconnected. Attempts to reach Jonaitis were unsuccessful.

In 2010, Jonaitis purchased the 111-year-old, 72,000-square-foot Saunders Bros. dowel manufacturing business at public auction for $450,000, roughly a third of its worth. The sale came with roughly $750,000 in raw materials. 

Two dozen workers laid off just months earlier were rehired and, by the end of the year, the company grossed $1 million in sales producing all-Maine dowels, rolling pins, drumsticks, paintbrush handles, croquet mallets, furniture and other customized wooden items. 

Around the same time, Jonaitis also bought the Saunders Bros. sister mill in Fryeburg for $200,000, a wood mill in Andover that produced furniture for Ethan Allen for $182,000 and, notably, the Moosehead Manufacturing Co. in Monson for more than $1 million.

After she auctioned off its parts, the Fryeburg mill burned down in December 2010 while it was on the market.

Sun Journal records and the lawsuit estimate that by the summer 2013, the Greenwood mill had closed, though it’s unclear why. At the time of the purchase, Jonaitis was quoted in newspapers that she was optimistic the relatively low startup costs and niche for high-end wood products remained lucrative. 

Glen Holmes, director of business lending and economic development for Community Concepts Finance Corp., said that despite growing demand for high-quality wood products, the industry can be unforgiving.

“There are still some pockets that are able to compete with China. Yes, the industry has collapsed, but I think there’s still a resurgence in the niche market for high-quality products,” Holmes said. 

At the time of she purchased the Saunders mill, Jonaitis also separated a 1-acre, contaminated lot next to the mill to prevent it from affecting the sale of the mill.

According to Greenwood town records, she never paid taxes on it. In 2014, the town declined to foreclose, calling the site a liability, and a few months later rejected a plan to take it over and apply for federal grants reimbursing cleanup costs. 

Jonaitis also owes Maine Revenue Services approximately $36,000 in income taxes and fees, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service $23,000 in 2011 taxes and the U.S. Department of Labor $410 for unemployment. 

ccrosby@sunmediagroup.net 

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