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Fire crews 'dodged a bullet' battling Great Northern Paper site fire, official says

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine (From The Bangor Daily News) -- The town's top elected official criticized demolition crews on Tuesday for unsafe conditions that impeded firefighters battling a toxic fire at the former Great Northern Paper Co. site.

Mark Scally, chairman of the board of selectmen, said town officials were looking for a way to halt demolition work priced at $1.31 million in response to a fire at the site on Monday. While no firefighters were reported injured, "something has got to happen," Scally said.

"I don't know what avenues we can pursue but these people are not doing the job correctly, not for this to happen," Scally said Tuesday. "There are a whole lot of bad things that could have happened. We dodged a bullet last night."

The property owner, North American Recovery Management of Boca Raton, Florida, did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. The town has a lien against the land and all site buildings for unpaid North American 2015 personal property taxes totalling $147,558. The town is owed $14,864 for 2014 and another amount, not available Tuesday, for 2016.

North American started demolition work on four buildings on the site in early February. The Maine State Fire Marshal's office is investigating the fire, reported at about 6:30 p.m. in a pile of "debris and junk" from that demolition, East Millinocket Fire Chief Les Brown said Tuesday.

The blaze had to be controlled because of the toxicity of the debris, he said. If the fire had gotten out of control, Brown said locals may have been forced to evacuate.

Lincoln's ladder truck carried the brunt of the workload, as it allowed crews to get water to the fire without sending firefighters into a partly demolished structure. Holes in the ground where machinery used to be placed, scattered demolition debris and missing railings all posed potential risks, the chief said.

Brown said he he wouldn't send a team inside the buildings being razed to battle fires unless someone's life was at risk.

"There's nothing there to save," he said.

Firefighters from East Millinocket, Millinocket, Medway and Lincoln had to lay about 3,000 feet of hose to reach the blaze because water had been shut off at the mill site. The mill's fire pumps already had been removed and sold, Brown said.

Crews also wanted to keep Monday's fire under control in order to protect the main portion of the mill, which has been eyed for redevelopment, Brown said.

The razing of parts of the mill, now owned by North American, stalled when a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order preventing the demolition of at least seven buildings that would be "an important part" of a developer's $240 million plan to make biofuels and other materials there.

A company called EMEP sought the injunction alleging North American repeatedly delayed closing on a $1.75 million purchase and sale agreement and committed breach of contract.

EMEP and North American were in settlement talks as of two weeks ago.

An order released on Feb. 28 does permit the razing of four buildings that North American got state permits to demolish on Feb. 1. It protects seven others.

An attorney for EMEP, Thimi R. Mina of Portland, said in an email on Tuesday that "our people don't have information beyond [news reports about the fire] but will evaluate as information becomes available."

Mina declined to comment further.

Scally has criticized North American for failing to sell the property to EMEP. EMEP hopes to use the paper mill site's biomass boiler to turn biomass into liquid fuels that could be blended to make biodiesel, gasoline and jet fuel as part of a $240 million plan. The plan would include a greenhouse, a chopstick manufacturing facility and electricity to be sold to the New England grid.

The company says the plant would employ 102 people, a prospect that makes town officials almost salivate at the hope of revitalizing a local economy devastated by the paper mill closure several years ago.

But industry experts have said that the plan has major financial and technological hurdles to clear. They expressed a mix of excitement about the technology and skepticism about the economics of the plan that has, at its heart, a unique and commercially untested process.

Meanwhile, three excavators continued to work the mill site amidst heaping piles of debris on Tuesday. The fire was the second this year at the partly demolished mill. Brown said a different contractor was cutting metal on the site several months ago, which sparked another debris fire.

"That's when we learned how dangerous the mill was," Brown said, pointing Tuesday to missing railings and removed walkway grating.

Scally said selectmen will meet on Thursday, March 23, to discuss the site. He chafed at North American Chief Financial Officer Jason Inoff's email released to media late Monday wherein he said he was "still gathering details but [the fire] was minor and handled by our on-site team."

"[Brown] handled the fire," Scally said, "not Inoff" and his staff.

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