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Layoffs Begin At Embattled N.H. Biomass Plants After Subsidy Plans Fail

Annie Ropeik

Two of the state’s wood-fired power plants are going offline and laying off staff, after subsidy plans failed in the legislature.

Now, the state is offering job training resources to affected workers – and a new proposal would put more funds toward helping affected workers in the timber industry.

The biomass plants in Springfield and Whitefield laid off most of their 40 total workers this week, says Jasen Stock, the head of the state Timberland Owners’ Association.

“People got their pink slips, they drained the boilers… and they’re going to try to figure out, alright, what do we do? Do we scrap ‘em, sell ‘em – what’s next?” he says.

Stock says these plants had been purchasing hundreds of thousands of tons of low-grade timber.  Groups like his argue that wood needs to be harvested to maintain the overall health of the forest and other timber markets.

He says two other biomass plants, in Bethlehem and Tamworth, are running at reduced capacity. Two more that would have received proposed subsidies were already idle.

"And so the trickledown effect from that through the forest economy and these rural communities is going to be pretty big,” Stock says.

Now, state Senate majority leader Dan Feltes is drafting a bill on the issue.

It would earmark a quarter of a million dollars in state career training money to help affected workers build new skills and find new jobs.

“We can’t leave people hanging out high and dry – we need to help ‘em out,” says Feltes, a Democrat who’s also running for governor.

He blames Gov. Chris Sununu for vetoing two bills that sought to bail out the biomass industry.

But Sununu’s office says the state put together a “rapid response” to the layoffs at the two biomass plants this week. These meetings are typical when large groups of residents lose their jobs at the same time. 

Officials say they went to Whitefield and planned to go to Springfield to offer resources on state job training grants, community college courses and unemployment benefits, as well as connections to local job openings.

“Preliminary conversations with those who attended have already produced beneficial results,” Sununu’s office says in a statement. The state official who led the Whitefield event says at least one worker has already lined up a job interview as a result of a state referral. 

One of Sununu’s biomass subsidy vetoes, in 2018, was narrowly overturned – but the resulting law died in a federal regulatory challenge. Legislators fell short of overriding the other veto this year.

Feltes wants the job assistance bill considered in the 2020 legislative session. He’s submitted a draft to the office of legislative services for review.

This story has been updated with more details about the state's "rapid response" to the layoffs this week.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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