Opponents of the land-based salmon farm proposed for construction in Belfast filed a motion in Waldo County Superior Court on Monday seeking to amend their case against the Maine Board of Environmental Protection after obtaining emails between high-ranking state officials that they say show a coordinated campaign of political influence on behalf of the developer Nordic Aquafarms Inc.

The motion centers on a flurry of emails from January 25, 2019, between Gov. Janet Mills, several of her staff members, her brother, attorney Peter Mills, Jerry Reid, who was then Mills’ nominee for DEP commissioner, Maine Department of Economic Development Commissioner Heather Johnson, and Peter DelGreco, president and CEO of the economic development group Maine & Co. The emails were obtained by Lawrence Reichard, a party of interest in the appeal and opponent of the salmon farm, through Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

Attorney Kim Ervin Tucker, who represents multiple parties in the appeal of BEP’s decision to grant four environmental permits to NAF, said the emails indicate that “officials at the highest levels of the Mills Administration … indulged solicitations from well-connected lobbyists, powerbrokers and influence peddlers … to put a thumb on the scale” for NAF during the permitting process.

Responding by email to a request for comment, Lindsay Crete, Gov. Mills’ press secretary, called the charges of political influence “patently false.”

Crete said the “long-established procedures” of the permitting process, including requirements for public input and opportunities for review and appeal of decisions, “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.”

DelGreco wrote to The Free Press: "Maine & Co. exists to attract new investment and job creation in Maine and we continually support Maine-based projects which we believe will succeed. We also believe in a fair process, which involves a thorough review of a project’s scientific and technical merits. To date, the Bureau of Environmental Protection (BEP) has conducted such a review and we applaud its work. We support a transparent permitting process which has been made possible by the BEP oversight of this project." 

The Free Press also attempted to contact Peter Mills, and Reid, and invited comment from DEP through its spokesman, but had not received replies at the time of this publication.

Marianne Naess, executive vice president with Nordic Aquafarms, wrote on Monday: “It is perfectly normal for an applicant to have procedural meetings when they are submitting multiple applications.” The purpose of the January 25 meeting, she said, was to ask that four DEP applications be consolidated and transferred to the BEP for a final decision. “We had conversations about what the consolidated timeline would look like given the department’s statutory review deadlines, none of which were met on the project. 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.”

The facility proposed by Nordic Aquafarms would produce 33,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon per year. The company has approval from the city of Belfast and purchase and sale agreements with landowners, including the Belfast Water District, which would move from its current location next to Little River to make way for the salmon farm.

Back in January 2019, Nordic Aquafarms had a wastewater treatment system application in front of DEP and a pending application for a submerged lands lease with the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands for a saltwater intake and wastewater discharge pipeline that would run between the salmon farm and Penobscot Bay.

The pipeline, a cluster of three pipes that would draw saltwater out of the bay for the salmon farm’s growing tanks and discharge treated wastewater back into the bay, would cross a strip of intertidal land that neighboring property owners Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace, who are represented by Tucker, believe belongs to them, not their neighbors Richard and Janet Eckrote, with whom Nordic holds an easement option to run the pipe between Route 1 and the bay. Ownership of this intertidal strip is the subject of two ongoing lawsuits, in county and federal courts, and is at the center of the BEP permit appeal in Waldo County Superior Court.

Tucker and other opponents of the salmon farm pressured DEP and BPL to address what they saw as Nordic’s lack of adequate title, right and interest (TRI) in the strip of land. On January 18, BPL notified NAF that an easement option with the upland property owners was not enough to establish the necessary land rights to process the application. Four days later, DEP followed suit requesting additional information related to TRI, including surveys, a move that Tucker said suggests that DEP did not view the application as complete.

The behind-the-scenes emails begin on January 24, when Peter DelGreco of Maine & Co. emailed Gov. Mills and her chief of staff, Jeremy Kennedy, about the DEP letter, saying it “has made the parties incredibly anxious.” DelGreco said Jerry Reid was planning to meet with NAF President Erik Heim the next day “to discuss paths forward.” Tucker, in her motion, notes that neither DelGreco nor Maine & Co. had previously appeared on behalf of NAF at any public proceedings or meetings.

On the morning of January 25, Peter Mills emailed his sister, Gov. Janet Mills, and Kennedy, copying the governor’s communications director, Scott Ogden, along with Jerry Reid and Maine Department of Economic Development Commissioner Heather Johnson, warning that the resistance from DEP might harm the chances of the salmon farm being built.

“It is now likely that the investors in Nordic Aquafarms will pull their Belfast project after investing millions in development cost,” he wrote. “The public fallout will be disastrous for the burgeoning [aquaculture] industry. … After Wednesday’s DEP letter, reassurances may not suffice.” Tucker notes that both Peter Mills and DelGreco used the governor’s personal email address.

Jerry Reid replied that he would be meeting with Heim of NAF that afternoon to “reassure him that the process will be fair and can work.” In the email he described the TRI problem as “non-trivial” and said, “It’s not in Nordic’s interest to move forward with a flawed application that will allow for a successful appeal of the permits they are seeking.”

Gov. Mills replied minutes later, saying, “Got it, thanks.”

“Were this not the governor’s brother,” Tucker writes in her motion, “such complaints and advocacy might simply pass as a disgruntled citizen expressing his dismay at an administrative process to the governor.” Instead, she writes, it’s the governor’s brother acting as a lobbyist on behalf of NAF and the aquaculture industry to influence the incoming commissioner of the DEP through his sister, the governor, which Tucker says “crosses a line.”

The emails from DelGreco and Peter Mills and the responses from Reid and the governor and her staff to the appeals on behalf of NAF and its investors, “[are] striking,” Tucker writes, “because of the routine, familiar — habitual — tone of these interchanges.”

Later the same day of the emails between Peter and Janet Mills, Reid and Acting DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim met with Heim. While the FOAA produced no records from this meeting, Tucker wrote in her motion that it should not have happened out of public view because of the known problem with Nordic’s application and Loyzim’s role as the head of the agency reviewing that application and Reid’s position at the time as her likely successor.

On January 30, five days after the meeting with Heim, Loyzim sent a letter to NAF’s attorney rescinding DEP’s January 22 request for additional documents related to TRI. Loyzim also contacted Tucker to say she had reconsidered her denial of a request by Tucker several months earlier to have Nordic’s applications be reviewed by the state’s Board of Environmental Protection and would now be recommending that BEP assume jurisdiction.

The decision by Loyzim to hand the applications over to BEP was viewed at the time by Tucker and other opponents as a way to skirt, or at least defer, the land rights question. Tucker, in her motion, writes that it took the determination of completeness out of the hands of the board and the state’s professional staff and put it in the hands of Reid, a Mills appointee and incoming commissioner of the DEP. Reid left the DEP in August 2020 and is now Gov. Mills’ chief legal counsel.

In public documents, state regulators have deferred the final question of who owns the disputed intertidal land to the courts, saying they aren’t in a position to unravel a property dispute. Tucker and other opponents maintain that Nordic’s application contained basic omissions and errors that should have disqualified it regardless of the underlying land dispute.

On April 19, the Bureau of Public Lands determined Nordic’s application to be complete, saying that it showed “sufficient” TRI for the submerged lands lease to be processed. Evidence of political influence at BPL is scant in the emails accompanying the appeal, though Tucker points to an email from Nordic’s attorney to DEP referring to an ex parte meeting attended by the director of the bureau.

On June 12, 2019, DEP likewise reversed its earlier finding that Nordic had not shown sufficient proof of land rights, allowing the application review to proceed.

In her motion, Tucker writes that the decisions by BPL and BEP “were entered under the guise of the lawful exercise of administrative ‘discretion,’ but, in fact, were made in furtherance of a Mills Administration political priority, for which NAF, the governor’s brother, Peter Mills, and the executive director of Maine & Co., Peter DelGreco, all lobbied the governor in January 2019.”

Tucker, in her motion, requested that the court grant the petitioners discovery authorization to put greater legal authority behind her requests for documentation from the state.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Lindsay Crete. She is Gov. Mills' press secretary.