BY EILEEN PERSIKE
Wisconsin is the top paper producer in the U.S., and local paper industry workers would like to keep it that way.
That’s one message Sen. Tammy Baldwin said she took from a meeting Saturday in Rhinelander, in which she met with mill workers past and present, and other community members who are fighting for the industry.
“There are a lot of challenges facing the paper industry in Wisconsin and across the country,” Baldwin said. “I wanted some takeaways that I could go back to D.C. and be the strongest advocate for the Wisconsin paper industry as I can be.”
For United Steel Workers Local-15 president Bob Smith, that would mean creating a level playing field for paper mills in the U.S. with other countries, such as China, with fewer regulations.
“Some of our biggest concerns here, truly (are) that we can stay viable,” said Smith. “We’re fortunate to be in a specialty plant and it doesn’t have quite the volatility that towel and tissue have. So, truly, what’s happening with us in a 100-year-old mill is we get beat up a lot on environmental issues.”
One of those environmental issues was Expera’s sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, which became news in 2014 when two environmental groups filed suit against the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for violating federal environmental protection laws. Sulfur dioxide gets into the air as a result of burning coal, which Expera does.
At that time, mill manager Jeff Verdoorn told the Star Journal that one of “only a handful of SO2 monitors” operated by the DNR is located downwind of the mill’s stack.
“We pass all air current modeling requirements other mills are subject to, but because there is a physical monitor, and because (we believe) local topographical issues, there are times where we get inversions that take the plume of our stack into the sampling area of the monitor,” Verdoorn said in 2014.
In 2016 Expera spent $3 million to raise the height of that stack by 90 feet, to comply with National Ambient Air Quality Standards. He told Sen. Baldwin Saturday, that’s $3 million dollars that could have been better spent.
“It didn’t change anything going out of the stack, but because we had to spend that $3 million that could have been spent on these guys’ equipment, for something that has no change on the environment, zero, none,” said Verdoorn. “And that’s very frustrating.”
International sales representative for Expera, Bob Cook, said he believes everyone at the table was in agreement that there needs to be balance between environmental regulation and investment in order to improve productivity and become a stronger international competitor.
“If I was going to ask Washington for something, it would be maybe something along the lines of, what incentives can you provide or how can you help our businesses be more competitive in the global marketplace,” Cook explained. “I think at the end of the day, if you take sort of a protectionist approach – and there are certainly times when that’s appropriate – if you’re not globally competitive, at some point you’re going to lose. It’s a difficult balance.”
Baldwin said she’s been working on a path to provide assistance through low-interest loans or grants for industries required by government regulation to upgrade facilities, such as Expera’s stack.
“What I had tried to do was create some sort of some low-interest loan fund,” Baldwin explained. “Is that another way to make us competitive but also not give up the worker protections, for example, that we would insist on that other countries wouldn’t?”
Verdoorn said that he believes in worker protection, but would like to see a more “common sense” approach to certain regulations that “have a tendency to go too far.”
Smith, the union president, said afterward that meeting with elected officials gives him the opportunity to share the importance of the paper industry in the Rhinelander community and throughout the country.
“It opens their eyes and their hearts to realize that without our industry today, the middle class will wither away, and my feeling is the backbone of our country is the middle class,” Smith said. “Our legislators and politicians need to support the working middle class and know what they need.”
Baldwin is campaigning to win her second term as one of Wisconsin’s senators in the November election.