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Luke Mill closing: a devastating loss for Western Maryland

Few communities in Maryland are as dominated by a single employer as the town of Luke. The Luke Mill has meant everything to the southwest corner of Allegany County and nearby towns across the Potomac River in West Virginia as well. Even in decline (falling from 2,000 jobs several decades ago to the 675 of today), the mill continues to churn out thousands of tons of coated paper, the glossy stuff used on magazine covers and soup cans. This week’s announcement by mill owner Verso Co. that the 131-year-old facility is closing by the end of June is a shock to the system, on par with Baltimore County losing the Social Security Administration or T. Rowe Price.

Allegany has seen such misery before. In 1986, Goodyear Tire & Rubber announced the closing of its Kelly-Springfield plant in Cumberland, a decision that would put 1,675 people out of work. The announcement caused then-incoming Gov. William Donald Schaefer to spring into action, securing the Kelly-Springfield headquarters and its 400 jobs, at least for a time (until 1999 when they were consolidated into Goodyear’s Akron headquarters). There appears to be no such last-minute, partial reprieve coming now.

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Luke Mill, an economic engine in Western Maryland for 131 years, will close by June 30, owner Verso Co. announced Tuesday. The shutdown means 675 people spread across Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia will lose their jobs, the company said.

How did it come to this? It appears the chief culprits are the declining demand for paper in the digital age and foreign competition. In a statement, Verso’s CEO noted that the mill had become less profitable in recent years. What officials can’t claim — at least not if they are being honest — is that state and local elected officials were not sympathetic to their needs. As mandated by state law, utility customers have for many years essentially been subsidizing the mill by allowing “black liquor,” a sludge of pulp and chemicals produced by the milling process, to be classified as a source of renewable energy. Burning black liquor was treated as if it were environmentally advantageous when, of course, it was not. Even as state lawmakers ratcheted up the the renewable portfolio standard for electrical power — approving a 50 percent renewable goal during the recent General Assembly session — they left the black liquor loophole intact, fearful that to remove the subsidy would lead to this very outcome.

In this one respect, there is an unmistakable benefit to shuttering the mill. As much as it might seem callous to talk about carbon emissions and long-term climate change concerns as families ponder how they’ll meet mortgage payments two months from now, subsidizing pollution never made much sense. What legislators were too timid to address has now been taken care of by the laws of supply and demand. In a matter of weeks there will be an end to the steady rumble of pine logs being stripped and chipped or steam belching into the air. Perhaps for the first time since the 18th century, there will be no operating mill on this bend of the Potomac.

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Not all environmentalists are cheering the Maryland General Assembly's approval Monday of incentives that double down on the state's commitment to renewable energy, though they all agree reaching a goal of 50 percent green energy by 2030 would combat climate change.

Gov. Larry Hogan has already directed top labor and commerce officials to do what they can and has expressed sympathy with the community. “My heart goes out to each and every one of these employees and their families,” he said in a written statement. But we would urge him to go further. Just as Schaefer did 33 years ago, the governor should make economic development and job training in Western Maryland a high-profile priority, perhaps investing additional tax dollars in projects on par with the Rocky Gap Casino Resort or Western Correctional Institution, two state-funded job engines that have clearly made a difference in Allegany, which, nonetheless, still reported an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent in March compared to the statewide 3.9 percent average — the highest of any Maryland subdivision west of the Chesapeake Bay.

The consequences of Luke’s closing are bound to be substantial. The town of Luke (comprised of a mere 65 residents) exists only because of the mill. Western Maryland has precious few manufacturing jobs to spare. In addition to Kelly-Springfield, there were the 1980s shutdowns of the Celanese Fibers, Fairchild Republic aircraft and Pittsburgh Plate Glass plants. Luke was the biggest operation left. This represents the end of an era, and those 675 workers and their families deserve whatever assistance can be made available to them.

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