BREWER — Maine’s candidates for governor weighed in Thursday on the announced closure of the Verso mill in Bucksport by airing ideas for preserving the paper industry and criticizing the policies and inaction they said led to the economic bad news.
Verso officials announced Wednesday afternoon that the local mill will shut down by the end of this year, laying off about 570 employees.
Gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud unveiled a plan aiming to protect the remaining paper mill jobs in Maine and help communities hit by mill closures during a press conference at the Eastern Maine Labor Council office.
The six-point plan, which Michaud said he would put into effect if he’s elected in November, includes holding a summit with industry leaders and working with New England governors on energy projects.
Gov. Paul LePage spoke about finding a buyer or new investors for the Verso mill at a Holden press conference later in the day.
Independent gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Cutler said in a phone interview that the recent mill closings should not be a surprise because the state’s leaders should have been working on solving the long-known problems with manufacturing in Maine — energy costs, declining demand and foreign competition.
“We understand the problem,” said LePage, who said he was especially worried about displaced employees and their families with winter coming.
“We have a facility that while it makes paper it’s with a technology that is very, very old,” he said later of Bucksport. “We need to take a look at what can be brought into that facility.”
The governor said investing in new technologies at the mill, such as possibly making cardboard, could keep people employed, which is what happened in Woodland when two tissue machines were imported from China.
Verso officials also have agreed to meet to discuss selling if he or his staff can find a buyer, the governor said.
Jeanne Paquette, commissioner for the Maine Department of Labor, said at the governor’s press conference that she learned about the Bucksport mill closing at 3:35 p.m. Wednesday and immediately got to work.
“At about 4:20 (p.m.) my team was organized,” she said. “We’re not going to waste one minute … We’re getting the application (for federal Trade Adjustment Assistance) in by the end of the day.”
Trade Adjustment Assistance is a program of the U.S. Department of Labor that helps workers who have lost their jobs because of increased imports or a shift of production outside the United States.
Michaud, a Democrat, was an employee for 29 years at the shuttered Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket which filed for bankruptcy recently after closing its doors in February and laying off 212 workers. He referred to the struggles in his hometown and the communities of Bucksport and Old Town several times during his press conference.
Old Town Fuel and Fiber announced its closure in August, laying off 180 workers, and learned last week it was denied Trade Adjustment Assistance funds for the employees. The United Steelworkers Union of Maine has appealed the federal decision, according to Duane Lugdon, United Steelworkers Union international representative for Maine.
LePage said at his press conference there may be good news in Old Town, with a possible buyer, which is something the union and town officials have hinted about in recent weeks.
“Progress toward a sale of the assets is being made but an announcement is not forthcoming,” Lugdon said in a Thursday email.
Cutler, an independent candidate, attacked LePage’s leadership on Thursday morning, saying the imminent closure of the mills is something the Republican governor should have known about and been addressing as the state’s leader.
“The overwhelming issue is the decline in the industry, at a rate of 5 to 6 percent each year,” Cutler said by phone. “The (Bucksport) mill hasn’t been profitable for years. Why is it only now … that the governor is talking about the natural gas pipeline in New England?”
“Why is everyone so surprised?” Cutler said later. “The problem with every paper mill is foreign competition, the declining demand worldwide for paper and increased energy costs.”
Addressing those items would go far in supporting Maine business, he said.
During the governor’s press conference, LePage said that the state assisted Verso with funds designed to lower energy costs and keep people employed.
“We made an effort to help with the energy side,” he said. “The state came to the plate and gave them a lucrative energy contract.”
The company in February purchased a 273-megawatt gas-fired power plant at the site of the Bucksport mill. About 28 percent of the power produced at the plant goes to the Verso mill, and the rest is sold back to the power grid operated by ISO-New England.
Company officials said they will keep operating the power plant after the mill closes, leading some to question if Verso breached its agreement with the state. The Public Utilities Commission in 2011 ordered Central Maine Power to enter into a five-year power deal with Verso.
LePage said he didn’t know if Verso violated the agreement but his economic team is looking into the matter.
“I’m frustrated that contract wasn’t tied to jobs,” he said.
LePage said he has “been trying” to fix problems with paper mills in Maine.
“I’ve been beating my head for four years,” he said. “We need to cut taxes. We need to address energy. I’ve done everything I can from a governor’s point of view.”
“The point of the matter is the Legislature we have in power right now is not interested in working with me,” LePage said later.
Michaud said the loss of every papermaking job directly affects the jobs of five to seven others, such as loggers or restaurant workers.
Michaud’s six-point plan states he will:
— Within the first 30 days of taking office convene a summit of industrial leaders, mill owners, union leadership, municipal leaders and landowners and representatives from the forest products industry to develop an action plan to revitalize and protect rural manufacturing jobs and address the cost drivers and challenges affecting the paper industry.
— Work collaboratively with other New England governors to address the energy problems facing the region, including expansion of natural gas as a transitional fuel, especially for industrial users, and consideration of ways to address solutions for demand-response throughout New England at the state level.
— Implement new rules and laws that hold private-sector companies accountable for job creation and retention when they accept public resources, including tax breaks and grants, and establish verifiable metrics for economic development programs.
— Place a two-year moratorium on changes to BETR and BETE, to provide predictability and stability to Maine’s manufacturing sector, and then establish a five-year plan to modernize incentives so that they are sustainable and predictable over the long-term.
— Reduce energy costs through long-term contracts for renewable energy while reducing Maine’s reliance on a single fuel source for electricity.
— Establish and fund an emergency reserve program to support municipalities in the event of large job losses, plant closures or erosion of the local tax base due to revaluation of large, industrial taxpayers to protect other property owners from unanticipated tax spikes.