WATERVILLE — Neither former Republican Gov. Paul LePage nor independent candidate Sam Hunkler favors removing the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield, a controversial proposal some environmental advocates say may be necessary for endangered salmon to travel upriver to spawn.

The dam was one of many topics the candidates addressed Tuesday at a gubernatorial forum held at Thomas College and hosted by the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills was unable to attend the event as she was meeting with  U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, chamber president and CEO Kimberly Lindlof told an audience of about 100 that turned out for the early-morning forum. Mills campaign spokesman Scott Ogden said in an email that the governor has committed to taking part in five debates.

Lindlof, who served as LePage’s finance director during his first campaign for governor, said the discussion Tuesday was meant to be educational and not confrontational.

But that didn’t stop LePage from taking shots at his absent opponent.

Lindlof led the questioning by asking the candidates how they would protect jobs and economic benefits of dams, referring to the political flashpoint over the fate of Shawmut Dam, which creates the reservoir that serves the Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan. Environmental and conservation groups argue more must be done to allow the endangered Atlantic salmon and other river-run fish to swim past the dams to reach spawning grounds. Representatives from Sappi have said that if the dam is removed, it would lower the water level 15 to 20 feet, making it too low for the mill to use.


LePage, a former Waterville mayor and city councilor who served two terms as governor, said Sappi is self-sufficient with power but needs the water from the dam to operate. The mill would have to reconfigure its system to bring water in, which would cost between $60 million and $100 million, and that is not reasonable, he said. He accused the Mills administration of working behind the scenes to “shut the dams down,” even though Mills has said she “would not allow” the mill to close over the issue and that it’s not necessary to remove the Shawmut Dam in order to allow fish to pass through.

“Janet Mills gets elected, Sappi’s gone,” LePage said. “End of story.”

Hunkler, an independent candidate and retired physician from Harrington, said he believes most people in Maine want to see hundreds of thousands of salmon come back up the Kennebec River. But he said he doesn’t know that that’s ever going to happen even if dams are removed, with climate change and waters warming. But he said he would like to see the possibility of finding a way to ensure the fish are able to move upriver.

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage fields a question Tuesday from the moderator during a forum discussing issues of the gubernatorial race at Thomas College in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Lindlof asked what the candidates thought of a proposal to extend passenger rail service to Bangor, something the chamber strongly supports.

LePage said he likes the idea but when he was governor he looked at various scenarios including passenger rail service from Montreal to Old Orchard Beach, Portland to Lewiston rail and Brunswick to Portland, but economically, it didn’t make sense. “It never works,” he said. “The numbers don’t work. We can’t scale it. We don’t have the people.”

Hunkler said Maine needs more public transportation and he favors a commuter rail that goes west of Portland. If Maine just keeps building roads and wider roads, it will result in more congestion, according to Hunkler.


“I would support the rail service out in that direction to start with,” he said.

Lindlof said lack of workforce and skilled workers are the No. 1 concerns of chamber members. She asked LePage and Hunkler what their plan would be to help resolve the issue and whether that would include new Mainers.

“It may include new Mainers to start with — I think that’s part of the formula,” Hunkler said. “I think more than anything, we need education and we need to have, in particular vocational education and I think that vocational education should start in grade school or junior high …”

To keep people in Maine, jobs must be created and incentives offered for businesses to come here, Hunkler said. Loans could be offered that are not so much matching loans, but grants to help people start businesses. He also suggested that retired people work 10-15 hours a week to help the service industry and build community.

Independent candidate Sam Hunkler, right, fields a question from the moderator as former Republican Gov. Paul LePage waits his turn to speak Tuesday during a forum discussing issues of the gubernatorial race at Thomas College in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

LePage said: “We have to stop paying people to stay home.”

The Mills administration, he said, expanded Medicaid by 95,000 people and of that number, “55,000 are men under the age of 29 that can only work and earn $1,200 a month. That’s a serious problem.”


LePage repeated his belief that Maine needs to eliminate the income tax. People who have made a good living move to Florida and a couple of years later, their kids move there also, he said.

“The issue is we have to keep people in Maine and most of all, the new citizens — if (President Joe) Biden’s going to open the border and send people to Maine, instead of sending them to Martha’s Vineyard, I’m going to put them to work,” LePage said, apparently referring to Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s controversial program that resulted in Venezuelan asylum seekers being transported on private planes to the affluent Massachusetts island community.

LePage said he thinks Waterville and Winslow high schools could be consolidated and one of the existing school buildings could be turned into affordable housing. Hunkler said big box stores and upper stories of buildings in places such as downtown Belfast could become housing.

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, center right, and independent candidate Sam Hunkler greet each other as they walk onto the platform to begin a forum discussing issues of the gubernatorial race at Thomas College in Waterville on Tuesday. At right is forum moderator Kimberly L. Lindlof, the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce president/CEO and a former LePage finance director. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Asked how they would aid municipalities, homeowners and farmers on the issue of PFAs, known also as “forever chemicals,” LePage said the state needs to pay for the problem as it approved the spreading of the polluted sludge in the first place. The chemicals have contaminated water wells across the Fairfield area and led to concern from everything to the consumption of local farm food to deer harvested during hunting, prompting an assessment by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“The state approved the spreading and the state owns it,” he said.

Hunkler said Maine needs to figure out how big the PFAs problem is and “test, test test.” The state needs its own testing laboratories to do that, he said.

“From there, we have to figure out how to get rid of it and we don’t know how to do that yet,” Hunkler said. “But we need to start doing research and development of how we do that.”

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