Aquafarm opponents allege political pressure tainted permitting process in new court filing

Mar. 16—BELFAST, Maine — Opponents of Nordic Aquafarms' plan to construct a $500 million land-based salmon farm in Belfast have made a new court claim alleging there was improper political pressure in favor of the project placed on the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in January 2019.

The civil motion was filed Monday in Waldo County Superior Court against the Maine Board of Environmental Protection and Nordic Aquafarms by the nonprofit organization the Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, Jeffrey R. Mabee and Judith B. Grace, the Maine Lobstering Union and Belfast lobstermen Wayne Canning and David Black.

The allegations were based on emails obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request by Lawrence Reichard. The motion asks the court to allow the plaintiffs to reopen the discovery process in order to determine the extent to which the alleged influence "tainted" the proceedings from the Board of Environmental Protection, which resulted in the granting of permits for Nordic Aquafarms.

"Petitioners assert that documents ... indicate that officials at the highest level of the Mills' Administration, including Gov. Mills, have indulged solicitations from well-connected lobbyists, power brokers and influence peddlers — including the Governor's brother Peter Mills — to put a thumb on the scale of the NAF permitting process since Jan. 2019," attorney Kim Ervin Tucker wrote in the motion.

Upstream Watch, a second nonprofit group that is a part of the ongoing court case against Nordic, has filed its own appeal of the board's decision to grant Nordic its permits.

Peter Mills, a longtime Republican politician and the older brother of Gov. Janet Mills, is the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority. He said Monday that he was contacted by one of U.S. Sen. Angus King's staff members in December 2018, before Gov. Mills had been sworn into office. Officials from Nordic Aquafarms had reached out to King's office because they were concerned that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection was not treating them fairly, Peter Mills said.

"They didn't know who to call," he said Monday.

He spoke with Nordic officials, telling them that the department would be fair.

"My concern was to try to reassure the applicant that Maine has a fair administrative process," Peter Mills said.

On Jan. 22, 2019, an official with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection wrote to Nordic, requesting the company submit additional information about its title, right and interest claim to the intertidal land where it planned to site its intake and outflow pipes.

He also wrote an email to Gov. Mills and some of her staff members that referenced Nordic's concerns.

"It now seems likely that the investors in Nordic Aquafarms will pull their Belfast project after investing millions in development costs," he wrote on Jan. 25, 2019. "The public fallout will be disastrous for this burgeoning industry that has been endorsed by environmental groups ... I have not heard about any reasonable opposition. Kim Tucker seems to have paralyzed the DEP — singlehandedly."

Peter Mills said Monday that he intended to let the governor and staff know that the applicant was concerned about whether the application was being appropriately handled by the department.

"I wanted to communicate that to the governor, and did. I didn't stay involved," he said. "I wasn't asking anybody to rule one way or another. What I was saying was somebody needs to look out whether the process is being managed properly. That's all."

A few weeks later, the Maine Board of Environmental Protection took over jurisdiction for the project. The seven-person board is comprised of Maine citizens who were appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. Their duties include substantive rulemaking, review of certain license applications and decisions on appeals. The board is part of the Department of Environmental Protection, but it has independent decision-making authority, and members also are tasked with providing for "credible, fair and responsible" public participation in department decisions.

In November 2020, after a long process that included a week of testimony and cross-examination about various facets of the project in Belfast, board members unanimously voted to approve all of Nordic Aquafarms' necessary permits.

"My communication to the governor, certainly, was not given to the Board of Environmental Protection. None of this was evidence in front of the board," Peter Mills said.

But according to the motion filed Monday, petitioners believe that Gov. Mills' political appointees have "tainted" the permitting processes. They claim that Peter Mills was working as an "advocate/ lobbyist" for Nordic Aquafarms and the aquaculture industry, and that his attempt to influence his sister crossed a line.

"Were this not the governor's brother, such complaints and advocacy might simply pass as a disgruntled citizen expressing his dismay at an administrative process to the Governor — perfectly permissible and protected speech," Tucker wrote in the motion.

Peter Mills, for his part, said he is not a lobbyist and was never paid anything by Nordic Aquafarms.

The Mills administration said Monday that Maine has a longstanding process of evaluating license applications that is governed by rules and laws, requires and welcomes public input and feedback and allows for review and appeal of decisions.

"Charges of political influence are patently false," Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for the governor, wrote Monday. "These long-established procedures guarantee the integrity and independence of the process and ensure that decisions are governed according to Maine law and on the merits of any application, free from political influence."