Mead Scraps Planned Chipmill in Hanover

by Ron Huber


"To fight and conquer in all your battles is not true excellence. Excellence consists of breaking your enemy's resistance without fighting." -Paul Watson.

Maine Public Radio news at noon on June 10th was terse and to the point: "Mead Paper is scrapping plans to build a woodchip facility in Hanover. Mead had proposed a plan that would have created 35 jobs, but the plans generated opposition in the town. Mead promised to make some changes in its design, but in a statement today, the company said those changes raised the cost of the project too much." What happened? Happily, nothing!

Where the biggest chipmill in New England would have rumbled and roared, 24 hours/day, seven days a week, transforming tens of thousands of acres of the Maine Woods into perhaps a million tons of anonymous woodchips, year after year, a quiet forested mountain shelf peacefully abides, alive with oak, maple, spruce, ferns, ladyslippers, frogs, blackbears, and all their many relations, low on the shoulder of Puzzle Mountain, in the middle watershed of the Androscoggin River valley of southwestern Maine.

Things weren't always so rosy. Shortly before Mead Paper Corporation threw in the towel on June 10th on its proposed megachipmill in the tiny town of Hanover, Maine, everything looked like it was going Mead's way. Large sums had been invested in political contributions and select consultants' fees, there were only friends in the governor's mansion and state legislature. Local newspapers were primed and poised to support Mead editorially. The town planning board, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and US Army Corps of Engineers stood ready to fast track Mead down their well-greased skids. Veteran chipmill builders/operators Fulghum Fibers had been hired to design, build and operate the mammoth million ton/year tree-gobbler. The site itself was replete with survey stakes and test bores; even violated with a dirt road.

Yet in a matter of a few short weeks the chipmill went from "done deal" to checkmated so completely that Mead dared not even apply for a single permit, anywhere, on any level of government. The company had been outmaneuvered in a textbook-perfect NIMBY-Plus action, in which people banded together across socio-economic strata and set in motion both defensive and offensive strategies, successfully repelling the unwanted industrial invader.

Local residents unwilling to lose the quiet serene ambiance of their town coordinated with the forest-defending chip-kickers of the Dogwood Alliance to give Mead a bad case of chipmillus interruptus.

Mead's hearts & minds forays - dog-and-pony shows at the Hanover Town Hall, replete with slick PR displays, jobs 'n taxes rhetoric, softball question-dropping shills sprinkled through the audience, and the other typical banal industry psy-op tactics, were so full of manure that they caused a grassroots group to immediately sprout up.

Initially a quarter-dozen residents of Hanover who saw the canker in Mead's rose - the transformation of their quiet rural village into a round-the-clock noisy and dangerous industrial zone - found each other in their discontent.

Dubbing themselves River Valley Voice of Reason (RVVR) they researched carefully, discovering Dogwood Alliance through the World Wide Web, to their great joy, for "You are not alone" is one of the most empowering things to learn. Dogwood sent advice both written and in the person of John Johnson, whose tour of the site and meeting with key RVVR activists, strengthened their resolve even further.

They sought out the weak points of their enemy (noise, traffic, property devaluation, overcutting, wetlands degradation), and pulled together a multi-tiered defense strategy of town-level chipmill moratoria, a credible demand for full review under Maine's mini-NEPA, tight supervision of town and state permit reviewers, a meeting with a ranking EPA-Region 1 official already interested in intervening in Maine's statewide chipmill frenzy, consciousness raising local petitions and telephone trees; a very readable, informative, friendly-yet-alarmbell-ringing newsletter, (the next-to-last issue of which featured a splendid article by Dogwood Bill Belitskus) sent to every property owner in town, anti chipmill signs along the roads, full-page ads in the local newspapers, and more.

Soon the well laid plans of Mead were crumbling. Town and state officials, buried under a blizzard of calls, faxes and letters from dozens of informed and outraged residents and vacation home-owners, refused to accept Mead's application, citing conspicuous gaps in information on noise, traffic, property values and wetlands degradation.

The state went further under pressure from Coastal Waters Project's Ron Huber, who sensed an export operation in the works. Maine DEP ordered the company to prepare a Wood Supply Study under Maine's Site Location of Development Act, that would lay bare the size, duration and cumulative impact of their project on existing forest users, both human and wild. Because the "significant public interest" and other red flags in state law were triggered, the company's application would be 'elevated' to the Maine Board of Environmental Protection, an appointed decisionmaking body that would have required formal public hearings, enabled cross examination by RVVERs and Dogs alike of every assertion made by Mead and Fulghum's "experts" , and generally requiring that every facet of the company's plans be held up to scrutiny.

On a parallel track, EPA Region-1 was sharpening its knives to dig into the Woodsupply study, should Mead have the audacity to prepare it. Maine Audubon Society was preparing a lethal injection of forest sustainability comments and objections.

Like a pitbull fighting a herd of angry porcupines, Mead fruitlessly growled and snapped, spewing threats and blandishments, enlisting the bureau chief of a major Maine daily to violate the journalistic code of ethics and stand up in public meeting and extoll the chippers; even flying townspeople to what Mead imagined was a perfect Potemkin Village of a chipmill (the Dewey Rose operation) that the Hanoverians nevertheless correctly saw as a noisy, dangerous forest eater.

Forced to follow the law, Mead finally decided that the cost of protecting the Hanover community from its noise, traffic and other insults was too high; furthermore, that it didn't want to reveal how much deforestation it would take to operate the mill at the profit margin it desired, nor how long it would be around.

The March date for construction startup became the April date, became the June date, then, like a soap bubble in a hailstorm, went pop! on June 10th, leaving nary a trace beyond a few survey stakes, a degraded wetland, and an empowered community willing to share what it learned with other towns, should Mead be so foolish as to try again elsewhere in Maine.

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