SKOWHEGAN (From news reports) -- Officials at the Sappi Somerset Mill said Monday that although Gov. Janet Mills has assured them the mill will not close in response to issues with relicensing the Shawmut Dam, they are still concerned about the future.
In an open letter, Mills wrote she "will not allow" the Sappi Somerset Mill to close in response to concerns that have been raised by the owner of a nearby dam that is up for federal relicensing.
The concerns about the mill arose during regulatory review of dams along the Kennebec River, which includes the 100-year-old Shawmut hydroelectric dam in the Benton-Fairfield area, as part of a complicated relicensing process by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Among the considerations for regulators is allowing a certain amount of fish, such as the endangered Atlantic salmon, to pass upstream.
The Shawmut Dam impoundment is the only source of water for the Somerset mill, which uses about 28 million gallons per day for processing, cooling and fire protection. The dam is owned by Brookfield Renewable U.S., headquartered in New York City.
The mill is also permitted to discharge a certain amount of wastewater and process water into the impounded Kennebec River, upstream of the Shawmut Dam.
The letter from Mills comes in response to a recent draft order issued by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection denying the Shawmut Dam's application for water quality certification, which found that under the Department of Marine Resource's fish passage recommendation, the Shawmut Dam did not meet a 99% threshold.
Officials at Sappi Somerset said Monday they were pleased with the recent support from the governor, but still harbor reservations.
"I'm certainly very appreciative of the time we've had with the governor, and helping her understand the potential impact to the mill," said Sean Wallace, managing director at Sappi Somerset. "We are pleased with her expression of support for the mill."
Wallace said he still has concerns because the water quality certification has yet to be issued.
"We're cautiously optimistic that Brookfield and other agencies can reach a speedy resolution," he said.
Officials at the mill became aware of the issues with relicensing earlier this year when a proposed amendment arose to remove the Shawmut Dam; the amendment was later pulled due to a "process issue." Since then, officials at the mill have remained involved in the relicensing process.
The proposed fish passage would be intended to pass at least 96% of Atlantic salmon upstream and 97% downstream, which officials at Brookfield said amounts to a three-to-five fish difference from the 99% threshold.
Brookfield officials wrote in a statement Monday they plan to submit a new water quality certification application by Oct. 18 that will address the issue and include "the most recent fish passage specifications and other operational enhancements for the Shawmut Project as well as additional analysis performed after the initial application."
Sappi accounts for 40% of Skowhegan's tax base and employs about 735 workers at the Somerset mill. Wallace said every job at the mill supports about eight other jobs in the community or state.
When issues arose, Sappi hired consultant TRC to look at alternate water withdrawal concepts and Acheron Engineering to assess the fish passage data.
Both proposed concepts had many problems and did not seem technically feasible for Somerset's complex operation, according to Jim Brooks, environmental manager at Sappi Somerset.
He said the Shawmut Dam creates a pond from which Sappi draws water. If the dam were to be removed, officials estimated a water level drop of about 15 to 20 feet, making the pond only 4 to 6 feet deep, which is not enough to have a proper water intake and reliable water supply.
"We asked consultants to give us some context and ideas on how we could comply with new water levels, and when we started looking into it, we found that the ideas and concepts provided had all kinds of problems," Brooks said. "We were concerned. Water is the lifeblood of a paper mill."
Following the draft denial, several groups spoke to state leaders to express concerns with the dam relicensing.
On Aug. 25, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson filed a bill to protect the Sappi Somerset mill and its workers in response to the permit denial and clarify the Legislature's role in "rulemaking on water quality issues," and "to ensure a balance between health rivers and Maine's heritage mill industry."
"As elected officials, we should do everything in our power to help, not hurt, mills like Sappi who hire Mainers into good-paying jobs," Jackson wrote in a statement.