RUMFORD — U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud visited the NewPage paper mill Monday afternoon as part of his ongoing tour of Maine’s paper mills and suppliers to discuss the challenges they face and the steps they’re taking to stay competitive.
Michaud, who worked at the Great Northern mill in East Millinocket for 29 years, said that the purpose of his tour is to “talk to different suppliers and owners so they can address the issues facing mill companies around the state.”
He added that his focus is on collecting stories and letters from mill workers, owners and suppliers to present before the White House in order to “make sure that the mills in our state are playing on a level playing field.”
Michaud said the tour of the NewPage mill in Rumford “went well.” They discussed ongoing energy concerns, staying competitive and wood costs, among other topics.
The 900-mile tour of Maine’s mills, which began in Mechanic Falls on Monday and will end on Friday in Bucksport, arrives several months after Michaud sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, asking him to investigate the details of a financial aid package that was offered by the provincial government of Nova Scotia to a paper mill in Port Hawkesbury that had closed more than a year before.
According to the Sept. 26 letter, Michaud said that the aid package “reportedly included millions of dollars in forgivable loans, more than a million dollars for worker training, reduced energy costs, funds to maintain the supply of wood fiber and land purchases, among other forms of assistance.”
In an interview on Monday afternoon, Michaud added that the paper mill in Port Hawkesbury produces supercalendered paper, a special type of paper mostly used for magazines and catalogs.
“The mill in Port Hawkesbury is now able to take this paper and sell it below market price,” Michaud explained. “There are mills in our state, the mills in Madison, Jay and Bucksport, that make supercalendered paper and compete with the mill in Nova Scotia, but we don’t have the support of government subsidies like them.”
Michaud said that his goal throughout the tour is to be able to “bring the experience of what these unfair trade deals will do to the Maine mills to the administration, and to force the administration to be very cognizant of these deals.”
“It needs to happen sooner rather than later,” Michaud said. “The more we can constantly keep talking about it, the faster we can push the administration to do something. I’m concerned that these illegal subsidies will lead to a decreased market share, and if we get undersold here in the U.S., it’ll be awful hard to get it back up and running.”
Michaud added that he’s recently been in contact with the administration regarding the mill issues.
“I just talked with the Obama administration this afternoon,” Michaud said, “and they know that we’re doing this tour and will be bringing these issues before them.”
The U.S. has already begun an inquiry into the Port Hawksbury paper mill case. On Oct. 23 the U.S questioned Canada at the World Trade Organization meeting about whether or not Nova Scotia used illegal subsidies in order to aid the paper mill. According to a Canadian official, Canada has begun work on finding out whether the subsidies interfere with WTO guidelines.
Michaud said that mills in Maine also have to face the possibility of the governor canceling revenue sharing.
“If the governor is successful in cutting revenue sharing, that’s money being taken away,” Michaud said. “It places a higher tax burden on the mills, the residents and other companies as well.”
In recent years, Michaud has worked to combat illegal subsidies. In 2010, he weighed in with the International Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce while they were deciding whether to place a tariff on Chinese and Indonesian companies that imported coated paper.
The tariff was in response to a petition submitted by U.S. paper manufacturers and their workers. As a result, the NewPage mill in Rumford was able to hire back workers that had been previously laid off.
Michaud said that he hopes to get the Obama administration to do something to make sure that Maine mills and the towns they reside in are protected from illegal subsidies and unfair trade practices.
“A lot of people don’t realize that this is about more than the workers at the mills,” Michaud said. “It has a rippling effect on small businesses and the residents who live in these towns. The mills are the largest employer in some of these towns, and if they shut down, it’ll be devastating.”
Michaud’s tour will continue throughout the remainder of the week, including stops in Lincoln and Baileyville on Wednesday, Madawaska on Thursday and Bucksport on Friday.