The Universal Notebook: Kiss my toxic landfill

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In the waning days of the current session, the Maine Legislature managed to slip a number of fast ones by us, perhaps none more misguided than the decision to allow the owners of the paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket to “give” the state their toxic Dolby landfill because potential new owners might be reluctant to take on such a liability.

Gov. Paul LePage makes a lot of noise about welfare reform, but apparently he doesn’t mean corporate welfare.

“Sure, Brookfield Asset Management, let us take this $17 million liability off your hands so you can sell your paper mills to a bunch of Chinese investors. Thirty years’ worth of toxic waste leaching into the groundwater? No problem. Think nothing of it.”

LD 1567 was one of the governor’s bills and was introduced by Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, a former employee of the Verso paper mill in Jay. The bill passed the Maine Senate 34-1, with only Sen. Dick Woodbury, U-Yarmouth, opposed.

The motives of the legislators who supported this state bailout of a toxic asset were without a doubt noble – the hopes of preserving good paper mill jobs. But they were also naive in the extreme. If they think Chinese investors are going to resurrect the Katahdin paper mills and put Mainers back to work making paper, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell them.

Our state legislators were so intimidated by corporate blackmail – “Take this filthy landfill off our hands or we’ll sell these mills for scrap. We mean it. Don’t make us do it.” – that they were afraid even to place reasonable conditions on the governor’s bill.

“We suggested amending the bill to take ownership of the landfill only if the mill actually sells, not at the time of the purchase and sale agreement,” Woodbury said. “That apparently wasn’t good enough.  We suggested amending the bill to take ownership only if the buyer actually operates it actively, and restores the jobs that they imply they are going to restore.  That wasn’t good enough, either.”

So much for free-market capitalism, governor. Forget about corporate social responsibility. Just kiss the dirty butt of Brookfield Asset Management. And don’t let me ever hear you say a word against corporate bailouts again. Bail, baby, bail.

The reason I’m not optimistic about the future of the paper industry in Maine is that I grew up in the shadow of a paper mill. The Westbrook of my youth was S.D. Warren. I lived in the section town called Cumberland Mills. I attended the Warren Congregational Church. I studied at the Warren Memorial Library. I played baseball on Warren League Field. The Westbrook High gymnasium was the Warren Gym. The football field (created by filling in a wetland) was named Olmsted Field, after the president of S.D. Warren. The best chance of a free college education was to win one of the S.D. Warren Scholarships.

Sure, the Presumpscot River was an open sewer and the smoggy air smelled like rotten eggs, but we called that “The Sweet Smell of Success.”

The mill employed 2,500 people. Everyone I knew had family members who worked there. My buddy Scott’s dad was the mill manager. Like a lot of mill families, Scott’s family landscaped their gardens with the little round white stones that came out of the mill’s debarking drums.

Today, Scott is retired from his own career in the paper industry and serves as Gov. Paul LePage’s legislative coordinator. He ought to know as well as anyone that papermaking doesn’t have much of a future in Maine.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Scottie, there are only 340 people left at what is now the SAPPI mill in Westbrook. To quote Bruce Springsteen, “these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.”

The future of the North Maine Woods lies not in pulp and paper, but in the preservation of the natural environment, outdoor recreation and ecotourism. Millinocket will never again be Magic City and East Millinocket will never again be a paper mill town. Their future is as the gateway to Baxter State Park.

Of course, now the state is going to have to spend $17 million to clean up the mess the mills left behind before anyone wants to invest in that future.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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