FILE - Sawmill

(The Center Square) – A Maine pulp and paper mill that was a flash point between incumbent Gov. Janet Mills and her Republican rival Paul LePage, over claims it would be shut down, has now announced plans to dramatically expand its operations.

Sappi North America announced last Thursday, it has approved a $418 million capital project to convert the paper operations at the Somerset Mill in Skowhegan, which employs about 700 workers. The company says the move is aimed at expanding its portfolio of packaging and specialty papers, pulp and biomaterials.

"By investing in our business to pursue growing areas of demand, we can remain profitable and competitive in the global marketplace," Mike Haws, president and CEO of Sappi North America said in a statement. 

But the announcement came less than two days after an election in which the future of the mill and its employees was a major issue in the gubernatorial race. 

On the campaign trail, former Gov. LePage criticized Mills for her administration's decision to deny an environmental permit to the operators of the Skowhegan dam over concerns about the impact on endangered Atlantic salmon.

LePage held a press conference where he blasted Mills for denying the permit, and claimed the decision would lead to the closure of the mill and the loss of hundreds of jobs.

He argued the state should be willing to accept Brookfield’s fish passage proposals allowing an estimated 96% of the Atlantic salmon headed upstream, compared to the 99% Maine is seeking.

In response, the Mills campaign accused LePage of resorting to "scare tactics" to win votes ahead of the election and said the governor "will not allow" the mill to be shut down. She spent money on a campaign ad vowing the mill would remain open. 

"I will always defend the Sappi mill and Maine mill jobs," the Democrat said in the ad. "Don't let other people scare you into believing otherwise."

Environmental groups say the Atlantic salmon, which is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act—is threatened by dam operations, which prevent the fish from migrating safely from the ocean to spawning and rearing areas in the upper Kennebec River watershed.

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation of Maine, have pushed for years for the removal of four dams on the Kennebec between Waterville and Skowhegan.

But the lumber and paper industry has long been influential in Maine politics, and Mills has been forced to respond to claims her administration's actions could shutter the mill. 

Last year, Republican lawmakers wrote to Mills that the move to deny the permit would "have a crippling effect" on the state's ability to attract "new and expanded investment in Maine's economy by private enterprise."

Mills fired back at those claims, writing in an "open letter to Sappi employees" published by local newspapers that the state has no intention of removing the dam or closing the mill.

Mills handily won reelection in Tuesday's midterms after getting 55.4% of the vote, according to preliminary election results.