The state of Maine is locked in a legal battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a pair of American Indian tribes about the way clean water standards apply in and around tribal lands.

Maine is arguing in the lawsuit that the EPA is unfairly imposing heightened water quality standards in the tribal areas. The state argues an EPA decision about the subject should be vacated because it exceeds the agency’s authority and is not based on scientific evidence.

The lawsuit has attracted the attention of Maine’s forest products and paper industries, because clean water standards play a role in industries’ ability to discharge material into rivers.

The lawsuit hinges on a disagreement between Maine and the EPA about the way to interpret rules about water quality standards. The state believes the standards apply the same everywhere in the state, including in tribal waters.

But the EPA has made the case that those standards, as they relate to pollutants in the water, are not strong enough – in part because the agency says Maine’s tribal sustenance fishers eat more fish than the population at large.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office considers the case a jurisdictional dispute that goes back nearly two decades, said Tim Feeley, a spokesman for the office.


“Maine’s water quality standards – the legacy of Senators Edmund S. Muskie and George Mitchell – are among the very best in the country, and we look forward to the end of this litigation so we can return to working constructively with EPA, our tribal communities, and all our citizens to advance our mutual environmental and public health goals,” he said.

There is a schedule for the filing of court papers related to the case, and it stretches into next year, according to court documents. The case will then be in the hands of a federal court, which will issue a ruling. The EPA is due to file a brief on the merits of the dispute July 30.

A spokeswoman for the EPA declined to comment because of pending court decisions. Two tribes have intervened in the lawsuit on the EPA’s behalf – the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Penobscot Nation. Tribal representatives did not return phone calls.

Many Maine municipalities are also watching, said William Taylor, an attorney who represents several such towns on the Penobscot and St. Croix rivers.

“They are imposing the new, more stringent human health criteria,” Taylor said. “So it’s a change, a significant change, and it could have significant costs for municipalities and industries.”

The Penobscot Nation, which gave one of Maine’s major rivers its name, has been involved in other court disputes over water stewardship in the past. The tribe sued Maine in federal court with a claim that the Penobscot River was part of its reservation, but lost in U.S. District Court in Maine. It then lost again in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston last year.

Whatever decision the court makes this time, it will have major ramifications for industries that produce paper products in the state, said Jerry Schwartz, senior director of energy and environmental policy for the American Forest & Paper Association. He said Maine’s water quality standards were strong enough and should remain.

“EPA comes along and disapproves of those standards,” he said. “They result in permit levels that are not achievable, and extremely expensive to comply with.”

Comments are no longer available on this story