A number of opponents appealing the Board of Environmental Protection’s decision to permit Nordic Aquafarms’ proposed land-based fish farm filed a motion March 15 in Waldo County Superior Court alleging Gov. Janet Mills’ administration thwarted a fair permitting process.

Kim Ervin Tucker, attorney for intervenors Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace, as well as the Maine Lobstering Union, filed the motion after receiving emails exchanged by several members of the governor's administration and her staff, and others from another project opponent, Lawrence Reichard, obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request.

According to documents Tucker shared with The Republican Journal that purport to be part of the material requested by Reichard under FOAA, there was a series of email exchanges among Department of Environmental Protection staff, the governor and her staff, and Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills, the governor's brother, discussing the project before the DEP found the company’s applications complete to be evaluated by the BEP.

Peter Mills expressed concern in a Jan. 25, 2019, email that it would be “disastrous” to the aquaculture industry in the state if Nordic backed out of its proposed $500 million project in Belfast. Jerry Reid, DEP commissioner nominee at the time, responds to Mills in an email that said he will talk to Nordic CEO Erik Heim later that day and try to reassure him that the DEP process “will be fair and can work,” to which the governor appears to simply respond with “Got it.”

In that same email, Reid calls the title, right and interest issue concerning Nordic's easement to lay pipeline across intertidal land “non-trivial” and questions why the company has not yet addressed the issue. On Jan. 22, 2019, DEP had requested more information about the issue to clarify the easement option with Janet and Richard Eckrote to place pipes in the intertidal area in front of the couple’s upland property. DEP asked for the Eckrotes’ property boundary survey, a detailed marking of the pipeline route and evidence that an application was submitted to the Belfast Public Works director to bury its pipes under Route 1.

The Jan. 22 email gives a submission deadline of Feb. 6, 2019, but the company did not submit its supplemental information until May 24, 2019. It included a 2012 deed of sale for the Eckrotes’ property, an amended easement agreement, the Eckrotes’ property survey, a sketch of Nordic's pipeline route and evidence of a pending application with Belfast Public Works for the pipeline.

After another DEP request for more property information and Nordic's submission of a Gartley & Dorsky Engineering and Surveying survey, plus a chain of deeds for the Eckrotes' and Mabee and Grace’s properties, the issue seemed to be put to rest and the permit process moved forward.

Tucker claims she did not receive the Jan. 25, 2019, emails between Reid and Peter Mills when she submitted a FOAA request a few months later in 2019 for the same information Reichard recently requested.

Nordic Aquafarms spokesman Marianne Naess told The Journal in an email that the motion is another attempt to cast doubt on the permitting process. "This is yet another attempt by the opponents to make a normal process look dirty by vilifying people who are just doing their job. The court filings show no ex parte communication in this process."

She said after two years of requesting information and talking to multiple state agencies the opponents have "nothing to show for it." Nordic has responded to all documentation requests from the state, she continued, and regulatory agencies do not agree with the opponents regarding lack of property rights.

The Tucker motion asks the court to open the record and seek further discovery to seek more evidence that the governor’s office and other powerful entities may have interfered in the permitting process “to put a thumb on the scale of the NAF permitting process since January 2019.”

The governor's office emailed a statement to The Republican Journal March 17 disputing the motion's claims.

Mills' press secretary, Lindsay Crete, said, "Maine law charges the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) with evaluating license applications for activities that affect Maine’s environment. The decision of any DEP Commissioner on a license, if appealed, is subject to the review of the Maine Board of Environmental Protection — an independent seven-member citizen board appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Legislature — and may ultimately be overturned. Decisions may also be further scrutinized by the Courts.

"This is a longstanding process governed by applicable Maine rules and laws; that requires and welcomes robust opportunity for public input and feedback; and that invites additional opportunity for review and appeal of decisions. 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.

"To that end, it was the Board of Environmental Protection that reviewed this application, heard and took into consideration public comment, and ultimately decided to grant permits to Nordic Aquafarms – not the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.

"Charges of political influence are patently false."