AUGUSTA — A legislative committee unanimously endorsed Gov. Janet Mills’ nominee to head the Maine Department of Environmental Protection on Wednesday despite vocal opposition from members of Maine’s tribal nations.

Jerry Reid testifies before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday. He said he would support tougher water-quality standards along 60 miles of the Penobscot River and sections of the St. Croix River to better protect the health of tribal communities.

Jerry Reid, who now is an assistant attorney general, received strong support from major environmental groups as well as attorneys who have worked alongside and opposite him in the courtroom. But tribal members and other opponents criticized Reid’s past role in challenging sustenance fishing rights and water-quality standards in the Penobscot River.

“I don’t trust this man and I don’t think it will foster a good relationship between the tribes and the state,” Dawn Neptune Adams, a Penobscot Nation member and environmental activist, told committee members.

Lawmakers on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee said they heard those concerns and urged Reid to work with Mills to improve long-fraught relations with the state’s four sovereign tribes.

“We heard what you said and we are aware of what you said,” Rep. Stanley Zeigler, D-Montville, said before the 11-0 vote. “Gov. Mills nominated Mr. Reid and the irony in this is that the conversation we had today wouldn’t have happened with any other nominee. You’ve brought this conversation to us and we have to deal with this.”

The committee’s endorsement now goes to the state Senate for a final confirmation vote.

FIRST SIGNIFICANT OPPOSITION

For his part, Reid pledged to support tougher water-quality standards along 60 miles of the Penobscot River and sections of the St. Croix River to better protect the health of tribal communities. He also said he would support creating a process for tribal members to request stricter standards for other waterways important to sustenance fishing.

Sherri Mitchell, a Penobscot Nation member and attorney who works on indigenous-rights cases, testifies Wednesday against the nomination of Jerry Reid to head the Department of Environmental Protection.

“These standards would be more protective of human health and sustenance fishing by many orders of magnitude as compared to what we have previously relied upon for that purpose,” Reid said.

Lawmakers heard hours of testimony on Reid, who was the first of Mills’ Cabinet nominees to face significant opposition in committee hearings. Much of the opposition came from members of the Penobscot Nation or other advocates for tribes frustrated over Reid’s role as lead attorney in two lawsuits involving tribal issues.

In one case over sustenance fishing rights, Reid successfully argued that the Penobscot Nation’s territorial jurisdiction only applied to the islands within their namesake river, not to the water itself. Reid also was lead attorney in the state’s ongoing federal case to overturn an Environmental Protection Agency order that Maine adopt stricter quality standards in the Penobscot to protect the health of tribal members who rely on sustenance fishing.

“All of these actions indicate that sustenance fishing rights are, indeed, a big deal in the real world and they demonstrate Mr. Reid’s willingness to fight against the improved water-quality standards that are necessary to support them,” said Sherri Mitchell, a Penobscot Nation member and attorney who works on indigenous rights.

ENVIRONMENTAL ENDORSEMENTS

Reid has led the natural resources division of the Attorney General’s Office since 2007 and held that position throughout Mills’ eight years as the state’s top lawyer. As division chief, Reid advised agencies on legal issues connected to the environment and often served as the lead attorney for the state in court or regulatory cases.

Supporters of his DEP nomination pointed to Reid’s work on cleaning up mercury pollution in the Penobscot River, prosecuting environmental violators and defending the state’s interests in strong federal air pollution regulations. That legal experience, supporters said, would help Reid in his work to implement and enforce Maine’s environmental laws.

“Jerry will provide clear, consistent and fair leadership of the DEP and apply the rules and regulations,” said Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine.

The list of environmental groups that endorsed Reid included Maine Audubon, Trout Unlimited, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Conservation Voters and The Nature Conservancy. One notable hold-out was the Sierra Club of Maine, whose executive board heard from members expressing “deep concerns” about the nominee.

“We believe there are many strong environmentalists in Maine who would better serve the interests of all of Maine’s people and Gov. Mills in this position,” Sierra Club Vice Chairman Olin Jenner told lawmakers.

Anticipating the opposition, Reid told committee members that his representation of the state in the Penobscot cases “was a function of my job in the AG’s office and the role of commissioner is very different.”

But Reid also said he “completely respects” the tribes’ sovereignty and pledged to meet with tribal leaders to discuss ways to work together on environmental issues. One of his first priorities, Reid said, will be to lay the specifics of his support for tighter water-quality standards along the main stem of the Penobscot and along sections of the St. Croix River important to sustenance fishing for the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

TRIBAL ISSUES OFFER PERSPECTIVE

Leaders of Maine’s four federally recognized tribes – the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs – have often described the state-tribal relationship as “fractured” or “broken.” Only the Passamaquoddy Tribe plans to send a representative to the Legislature this year, and a state commission created to address state-tribal relations has been inactive for years.

Mills and her successor as attorney general, Aaron Frey, have said they want to repair those relationships.

Adams, the Penobscot Nation member and environmental activist, said Wednesday evening that she was not surprised by the committee’s vote and that she hopes lawmakers take tribal concerns to heart.

“I think it gives them a lot to think about,” she said. “It gave them a new perspective.”

Committee members appeared to agree.

“I think the folks who testified really laid out a blueprint for how we can begin to have a conversation and to start the really hard work of healing,” said Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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