Workers for Northern Clearing remove trees on an existing Central Maine Power electricity corridor that has been widened to make way for new utility poles, April 26, 2021, near Bingham, Maine. Voters rejected a $1 billion transmission line but that is not the end of the polarizing project in the woods of western Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine’s environmental regulator suspended a key permit for the construction of the Central Maine Power Co. corridor late Tuesday in a significant blow to the utility and the 145-mile transmission line it is looking to build in western Maine.

The announcement comes less than a week after a CMP affiliate announced it would stop work on the corridor after a November referendum aiming to block the project passed decisively hours after being urged to do so by Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat who backs the corridor.

The decision will make it all but impossible for the utility to meet its 2023 target to complete the project, which would send hydropower from Quebec to connect with New England’s energy grid in response to a huge Massachusetts clean-power request. It could also jeopardize it entirely as legislative approval of the project seems unlikely and alternative routes pose other challenges, although CMP is challenging the constitutionality of the referendum in court.

“This project was fatally flawed from the very beginning and it’s time for Massachusetts to [choose] an alternative option,” Pete Didisheim, the advocacy director for the anti-corridor Natural Resources Council of Maine, said.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection said earlier this year that it would reevaluate the company’s permit after a Superior Court judge ruled in August that the Bureau of Parks and Lands did not have the authority to grant two leases to CMP for use of public lands in Somerset County. The November referendum also retroactively banned the construction of such transmission lines in the upper Kennebec region and required legislative approval for corridor leases over public land.

In her decision, Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Melanie Loyzim found the referendum constituted a change of circumstances requiring a suspension of the permit for the project. She wrote that construction should stop and gave CMP a month to stabilize disturbed soils and access roads and backfill remaining holes.

CMP and its allies had argued that a suspension was unnecessary now because the statutory changes from the referendum do not go into effect until Dec. 19 and are facing legal challenges. But the commissioner rejected that argument, saying the referendum’s approval, which was certified by Mills last week, was sufficient to justify suspending the permit.

Not suspending the license would allow “continued construction in the region where such construction will shortly be banned” and in other areas with no “reasonable expectation that those segments will ever be part of an alternative route” as well as a type of project that will soon not be allowed because the Legislature has not approved it, Loyzim said.

The decision will be reversed if a court rules in favor of CMP in the company’s lawsuit challenging the referendum, the commissioner wrote.

CMP and its allies are disappointed in the decision, Thorn Dickinson, the president of NECEC Transmission LLC, the affiliate managing the project, said in a statement. He said there was no need for the agency to pull the permit since construction stopped already.

“We look forward to next month’s hearing in the Maine Business Court where we will present our arguments that the initiative is unconstitutional and cannot be lawfully applied to stop this vital project,” he said.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.