EPA Decision: Maine Water Quality Standards Inadequate for Tribal Waters

Feb 5, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine - In a decision that is being welcomed as "historic" by Maine Indian tribes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has asked the state of Maine to revise some water quality standards for tribal waters.

The decision comes during ongoing litigation brought by the state against the EPA. Maine's chief of environmental protection says it could have far-reaching consequences for discharge license holders.

In a communique to Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patty Aho this week, EPA Regional Administrator Curt Spalding delivered the news:  that federal regulators disapprove of some state water quality standards established by Maine more than a decade ago.

Aho says she was stunned by the announcement that the standards could not be used on tribal waters because they're not protective enough of human health, and of the tribes' sustenance fishing practices.

"It is, in some cases, work that we thought had been approved and had been in place for many, many years," Aho says. "So it is just simply, as I stated, breathtaking in the scope and the sweep."

Breathtaking in its scope, Aho says, because of its wide implications for sewer districts, paper companies and other discharge licensees.  She says the EPA has not defined what it means by waters in Indian territory.  Nor, she says, has the agency indicated how it wants the state to revise the standards and on what scientific  basis.

"It's asking us to redo something, but not telling us to what standards," she says. "They're not telling us which waters in the state, or what parts of those waters, we are to redo these standards."

"We're talking only about the waters within tribal reservations and trust lands," says Ken Moraff. "We're not talking about the waters upstream or downstream, although there could possibly be an effect on upstream dischargers."

Moraff is the director of the Office of Ecosystem Protection for EPA. He says existing permit holders will not be affected by the decision. But when new water quality standards are adopted in the future, any new or re-issued permits would have to meet the new standards, which have yet to be established.

Moraff says the decision is significant from the EPA's point of view, too. That's because this is the first time the EPA has determined that state standards are inadequate for uses in tribal waters, including sustenance fishing.

Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Indian Nation couldn't be happier.

"For the first time ever, what the EPA has said is that tribal subsistence and sustenance-based rights are a determinant factor under the Clean Water Act," Francis says. "So you have to acknowledge those differences while setting your standards within Indian territory. You have to respect those practices. You have to respect the human health issues and the cultural identity of the tribes within those areas where the standards are being set."

As part of an ongoing lawsuit brought by the state against the EPA over jurisdiction to set water quality standards, the EPA has concluded that the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, which extinguished certain tribal rights, allows the state authority to set water quality standards in tribal waters.

But Matt Manahan, an attorney representing discharge license holders along the Penobscot River, says what the EPA is also doing is setting up a two-tiered system for the tribe.

"What this is saying is, notwithstanding the fact that the Settlement Act treats them just like any other citizens of the state, we're going to carve them out and say because they would like to have standards that are more stringent than the standards that apply to everyone else in the state, even though the science doesn't support that, we're going to basically carve that out and give them special treatment for purposes of water quality standards," Manahan says.

The EPA has given the state 90 days to establish new standards for tribal waters. Commissioner Aho says she's working with the Attorney General's Office to determine a response.