Now that Bath Iron Works has lost the contract bid for the Coast Guard cutters, it is time to reassess the future of the largest manufacturer in Maine. With 1,000 or more jobs on the line, BIW should be looking at what is over the horizon to build, no matter how far it is removed from military ships. Speaking of military ships, I watched the “super stealth” Zumwalt go down the Kennebec River for the last time on September 7th from Doubling Point Light in Arrowsic and then Kennebec Point in Georgetown. The state-of-the art destroyer is so quiet with its gas turbine-electric motor propulsion system that if it were going down river unassisted you would hardly notice it except for its massive presence.

The Zumwalt is truly a sophisticated feat of engineering. However, at $4.4 billion for this destroyer, the Navy is only buying 3 out of the 32 Zumwalt-class destroyers planned. What is BIW’s contingency plan when the Navy runs out of money to pay for very expensive destroyers and the Coast Guard chooses another shipbuilder for the cutters?

On Labor Day 1994, Bath Iron Works celebrated the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of Labor Day. At the “Labor Day Rally,” the speakers included BIW President Duane “Buzz” Fitzgerald, Local S6 President John “Stoney” Dionne, IAM President George Kourpias, Representative Tom Andrews, AFL-CIO Treasurer Tom Donahue, Sen. George Mitchell, and President Bill Clinton. The speakers all talked about the need for diversification and conversion to a peacetime economy as necessary for the future of the shipyard. They were, of course, speaking about building commercial ships like the “Ro-Ros” for the States Lines, tankers for the Marine Transport Lines, and the largest ship ever built at the yard, the 720 foot Container Vessel Maui for the Matson Company. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan ended the commercial shipbuilding subsidy of which BIW was benefiting, and commercial shipbuilding jobs went offshore. Very few large commercial ships were ever built again in the United States after President Reagan took the subsidy away.

In 1981 when I went to work as a maintenance mechanic at BIW’s Harding Plant, Jim McGuiggan took me under his wing and showed me how to take machinery apart and put it back together. Jim apprenticed as a machinist at Hyde Windlass Company when he was 16 before BIW merged with it and then Jim worked as a maintenance machinist at the Harding Plant. He used to tell me about the industrial products that BIW made in the past along with Navy ships. At the Harding Plant after World War II, BIW made parts for the newly acquired Pennsylvania Crusher Company. These were huge machines that crushed rock and coal. BIW made parts for its subsidiary “Penn Crusher” from 1954 to the early 1960s. Jim would also tell about the paper plate machines built by BIW for the Keyes Fibre Company of Waterville, Maine in the late 1920’s. I wonder why BIW does not build industrial products anymore.

On Nov. 7, 2008, Gov. John Baldacci signed the executive order establishing The Ocean Energy Task Force. Never before was there so much excitement generated for clean renewable energy from the Gulf of Maine. In 2009, Baldacci led a group that included BIW engineers and University of Maine officials to Norway to view the world’s first floating wind turbine built by Norwegian energy giant Statoil.

BIW President Jeff Geiger, in the BIW News December 2009 issue, wrote, “In parallel, we will explore potential opportunities in alternative energy markets with emphasis on off shore wind development. We are first and foremost shipbuilders but we owe it to ourselves and to those who depend on us to stay abreast of developing markets that might utilize our capabilities. We must keep in mind that all of these things depend on sustained performance.” There is no other company in Maine, other than BIW, with the experience and the facilities to build complex structures over 600 feet long that float.

In 2013 Statoil proposed placing the initial offshore wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine in collaboration with Maine companies, the pilot project worth $120 million. However, Gov. Paul LePage reneged on the deal by changing the rules. LePage had another energy proposal he wanted ratepayers to pay for, a natural gas pipeline. Statoil withdrew the offer saying that the Maine business climate was too unreliable and then built offshore wind turbines in Scotland.

The cost of placing the full array of deep water wind turbines offshore in the Gulf of Maine to supply clean renewable power for New England was projected to be over $20 billion. The project is still a workable one with Maine Aqua Ventus, a consortium pursuing a parallel but, independent project, made up of the University of Maine, Emera, Cianbro, Advanced Structures and Composites Center, and DCNS, a French naval shipbuilder. An estimated 15,000 jobs could be generated in the designing, construction, and maintenance sectors. I wonder why BIW does not show any interest in building offshore wind turbines anymore?

At BIW the Local S6 mantra is “We can build ANYTHING!” In order to make this conversion happen the workers at BIW need community support. Studies show that we would get many more jobs building commuter rail systems or wind turbines. But it won’t happen unless our elected officials at every level in Maine hear from the public. Help us tell the politicians that they must make this change soon so that BIW workers can build anything!

Peter Woodruff lives in Arrowsic and is retired from Bath Iron Works.

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