By MARINA VILLENEUVE
BANGOR, Maine (AP) ~ A Maine tribal nation is fighting a federal judge’s move to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to rework former President Obama’s administration’s stricter water quality standards for rivers fished by tribes.
The Penobscot Nation asked the court Thursday to rule such Obama-era rules are needed to ensure tribal members’ rights to fish for sustenance free from water pollution.
The state Department of Environmental Protection sued the EPA in 2014 against the water quality standards, which became effective last year and are stricter for certain tribal areas than across the state.
U.S. District Judge Jon Levy ruled Monday the stricter standards can stay in effect while the EPA makes “substantive changes” concerning the rules. In a statement, Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills said when she takes office, she’ll work with tribes, the EPA and other stakeholders to develop the “best water quality standards” and protect sustenance fishing.
Maine has argued that Maine’s water quality rules have long been strict, and that the same standards should apply to all Maine waters.
But in 2015, the EPA said Maine’s proposed standards didn’t ensure water was clean enough to protect the health of tribal members who take fish from tribal waters for sustenance. Maine’s tribal members have historically consumed fish from at higher rates than the public, according to the agency.
“We have a very environmentally conservative Trump administration in place that now has the opportunity to reconsider the Obama administration’s decisions protective of tribal water quality,” said attorney Kaighn Smith of Portland, who represents the Penobscot Nation, which intervened in the lawsuit.
He added: “Maine has forever taken the position that the sustenance fishing rights of the Penobscot Nation is nothing more than an opportunity to catch whatever fish might be available, even if they’re laden with toxins. We think in this era, that’s just dead wrong.”
The Penobscot Nation seeks attorney fees and argues a 1980 act ensures tribal members can safely take fish for sustenance within the main stem of the Penobscot River. That 1980 act settled tribal claims of massive swaths of Maine.