Authorizing the state to buy a landfill and assume responsibility for its closure and cleanup is a risky proposition. It’s the kind of thing that should only be considered if the result of not doing something would be much worse.

That’s the situation in the Katahdin region right now. And that’s why the Legislature should give the state the authority to buy the landfill, making a sale of two idle paper mills more likely.

What’s at stake is the permanent loss of mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket, which provided jobs and a way of life in the region for generations. The Millinocket facility, which burned oil for power, was shut down in 2008 because of high energy costs. The East Millinocket facility was closed in April when a deal to purchase it fell through. Together the two paper mills accounted for about 650 jobs.

The proposal backed by Gov. LePage would structure the deal so that the state would take over the landfill if a buyer was ready to reopen the mills and restore those jobs. If not, responsibility for the landfill would remain with its current owners.

Reviving the mills will not be an easy job. Conversion of the Millinocket facility’s heating plant would be a major investment, and since the two mills are closed, they have no active customers that a new operator could count on.

Without intervention, the private sector might pass on the Katahdin region, taking a traditional industry and hundreds of manufacturing jobs from the Maine economy.

This is one of those occasions where the state should step in and do what the free market will not.

Backers of the plan say that the state would have some safeguards built in. For instance, the landfill comes with assets that could be sold to offset the state’s share of the landfill costs.

Still, taking responsibility for buried environmental problems is always a risk.

But with the devastating toll the loss of these two mills would exact on their home communities and the state, this is a risk that is worth taking.