Sale of Saunders Brothers Mill teetering on the verge
A tangle of paperwork and environmental concerns threaten the continued existence of Saunders Brothers Mill in Locke Mills.
The immediate fate of the mill is in the hands of potential buyer Joseph Woodbury, of National Wood Products, who met Monday with mill representatives, environmental consultants, DEP representatives, and state politicians to try to resolve the issue.
Woodbury’s desire to buy the mill, and thereby save 55 local jobs, is being tested in the face of potential liability for environmental cleanup costs.
“This is the largest tax base in the town,” said State Rep. Jarrod Crockett (R-Bethel), arguing the mill‘s health is integral to the community. “I have constituents who work here. My grandfather worked here,” Crockett said.
At a Monday's meeting, the lawmakers and environmental officials appeared successful on eliminating the biggest concern -- a buyer's liability for an on-site dump that hosts environmental contaminants including PCBs and PAHs.
But there is not enough time to guarantee other environmental issues will not arise, and Woodbury and Norway Savings Bank, which would finance the purchase, are seeking assurances that there are no other environmental liabilities present in the facility.
Testing that has been done suggests that the site has no other issues, but the DEP is unable to issue a blanket assurance without further testing, or at least without receiving and processing a comprehensive report on the tests that have already been done .
In the time it would take to complete and process the report, the window of opportunity to purchase the mill will have passed.
If the deal does not go through, Woodbury said the effects will be immediate.
“I would guess that there would be layoffs on Friday,” he said. “Even if [the bank] gave us time, the mill’s financial situation is deteriorating so rapidly that it wouldn’t be viable.”
“Public health and safety is concern number one,” said State Rep. Sawin Millett (R-Waterford). “But to us politicians, employment has to be 1A.”
Keith Taylor, an environmental consultant who has conducted tests at the mill, said the results, while incomplete, indicate that the mill is probably safe.
“This is a pretty clean industrial site, considering how long it’s been in operation,” said Taylor. “The purpose of DEP intervention would be to protect workers from hazardous conditions, or to protect the public from danger. I don’t think there’s any public that needs to be protected here.”
The decision facing Woodbury is whether the existing data is reassuring enough for him to move forward with the purchase.
The stakes are high. If he backs away from the deal, then the mill will probably be closed within a week. If he moves forward with the deal and then discovers a significant environmental liability, the consequences would be even more disastrous.
“I’m not a rich man,“ said Woodbury. “If there’s an environmental concern here that costs big money to address, National Wood won’t have the money to fix it. Then you’d lose these 55 workers and my 24 workers at National Wood, too. “
The quickest way for the mill to get a clean bill of health from the DEP is to submit a Voluntary Response Action Program (VRAP) application, which helps to protect companies that volunteer disclosure of information from liability.
If the VRAP was sent in without any additional testing, it would take a couple of days to compile the application, and one or two weeks to process it. The application fee and write-up would cost several thousand dollars.
Taylor said the cost of compiling a VRAP report with additional testing would be $5,000 to $10,000, plus several thousand in filing and administrative costs. In this scenario, the VRAP report would take three to four weeks to process.
Mark Pillsbury, of Saunders Brothers Mill, said there has been adequate testing done already.
“I’m hearing a continuous theme of more testing,” said Pillsbury. “They did testing in 1999, and since then we’ve had more testing by St,. Germain and by Sebago. How much testing needs to be done?”
The potential deal breaker has attracted the interest not only of the state representatives, but also the governor and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.
“We can make sure all the state’s resources are available to help make this happen,” said Diane Jackson, who was representing Snowe’s office.
Woodbury said that if the environmental concerns are laid to rest, the mill still faces a difficult period of recovery.
“Saunders Brothers has been losing money for 10 years,” he said. “It won’t be easy to turn the mill around. We have to do it on a shoestring.”
Woodbury spoke briefly about his vision for the future of the mill. “I need assurances that I can focus on the task at hand. I need to concentrate on changing the culture of the company, and bringing on new vendors.”
“I’ve turned around a printing company in Connecticut, a concrete company in New Jersey,” continued Woodbury. “I’ve already turned a Saunders Bros. business around before, so I know the demons in the details.”