The future of the Shawmut dam and Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan took center stage in the race for governor Monday when former Gov. Paul LePage accused current Gov. Janet Mills of working to shut down the dam, which would result in hundreds of lost jobs.

A Mills campaign spokesman called the accusation “a lie” and a scare tactic.

“Unfortunately, Paul LePage chose to lie to Maine people today by wrongly saying that the State is requiring the removal of the Shawmut Dam, going so far as to employ scare tactics and to suggest that the Governor wants to close the mill,” Scott Ogden, campaign spokesman, wrote in an email. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

LePage, a Republican who served two terms from 2011-2019, is taking on Mills, a Democrat, in the Nov. 8 election. Independent Sam Hunkler, a physician from Beals Island, will be on the ballot as well.

Standing on a sidewalk on Augusta’s east side, LePage pointed to a July draft order by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in which the state denied Brookfield White Pine Hydro LLC’s request for a water quality certification for the Shawmut dam.

“The Janet Mills administration is about to issue an order that will place Sappi’s entire Somerset operation and 750 jobs at risk,” LePage said. “Her administration is openly plotting the removal of the dam, resulting in the subsequent closing of the Sappi mill, an absolute economic disaster for the state of Maine.”

Brookfield, which runs the dam, applied for relicensing in October 2021. 

The draft denial indicates that the state has learned that the proposal is likely to change significantly, in part because of ongoing analysis of the effect of hydroelectric dams on fish passage.

“A denial without prejudice is not based on any judgment of the technical merits of an Applicant’s request,” the document states. “Instead, a denial without prejudice is appropriate when an Applicant’s request lacks sufficient documentation or if an Applicant’s request has materially changed since it was initially filed.”

Sappi spokesman Peter Steele, who previously worked in the LePage Administration as a communications director, said in a statement that the mill “encourages federal and state agencies to accelerate the relicensing process.”

He said the mill relies on the dam to run its water systems and the company has said previously that removing the dam would lower the water level so low that the mill could no longer operate.

“Until the dam is relicensed, the mill will continue to operate under a cloud of uncertainty,” Steele said.

Brookfield’s communications office did not respond to an email from Spectrum News.

Maine Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner David Madore wrote in an email that the DEP denial “does not forecast any potential future decision” by the department regarding Brookfield’s request. 

Madore stated the state is waiting on additional information from the federal government before rendering a decision.

Just last year, Mills wrote a letter to Sappi employees that “the mill isn’t going anywhere.” In a letter published in August 2021 in the Morning Sentinel, Mills wrote that the dam would not need to be removed to improve fish passage.

“My administration will protect the mill and its important contributions to Maine’s economy, and we will work to restore Atlantic salmon passage by pursuing innovative solutions,” Mills wrote.

At Monday’s press conference, Rep. Shelly Rudnicki (R-Fairfield) said all of central Maine would be impacted by a mill closure.

“People travel from as far away as two hours to work at Sappi,” Rudnicki said. “The ripple effect will be devastating.”

LePage, who would not answer questions unrelated to the dam, said if he became governor again that he would approve Brookfield’s water quality application.

When asked by reporters why representatives for Sappi and Brookfield were not at the press conference, LePage said he had spoken to them but did not invite them to the event.

“Sappi and Brookfield need to go through a process and the last thing they want to do is piss off a vindictive governor,” LePage said. “And she is very vindictive if you’ve not followed her reign of terror.”