Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Rena Newell celebrates with Rep. Michael Sylvester, D-Portland, following the House passage of a bill at the State House in Augusta on Tuesday that allows the tribes to regulate their own drinking water and other water-related issues. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

The Maine House voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill that would give the Passamaquoddy more control over the tribe’s drinking water.

The 103-35 vote came a day after roughly 300 supporters rallied at the State House in support of the bill sponsored by Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

Vice Chief Ernie Neptune of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point reacts Tuesday following passage of a bill in the Maine House that allows the tribes to regulate their own drinking water. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

The bill faces further votes in the Legislature and opposition from the Mills administration, which has raised concerns about giving the tribe more control over a water district that not only serves its community at Pleasant Point, but also the neighboring towns of Perry and Eastport. But the strong, bipartisan vote in the House shows the bill is well-positioned to overcome any possible veto.

Newell said poor water quality has been a problem for generations and that drinking water has routinely been found to contain high levels of chemicals that have been linked to cancer. It’s unacceptable that nothing has been done for decades to ensure the tribe has access to clean, healthy drinking water, she said.

“As the seasons change, so does the water quality at Sipayik,” Newell said. “As we all welcome the spring season, an annual time of renewal when Mother Nature reawakens, the Passamaquoddy of Tribe of Sipayik will more than likely begin its annual observations and experiences in receiving (discolored) drinking water, often tainted by bad odor and often poor tasting.”

The bill would effectively allow the tribe to drill wells to create a new source of drinking water for the district.

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Proponents of the bill say the issue is a matter of basic human rights and part of the Maine tribe’s longstanding effort to regain its sovereignty, which has been limited by a unique settlement agreement with the state and the federal government in the 1980s. Bills to restore full tribal sovereignty and to extend mobile sports betting to tribes also are awaiting votes in the Legislature.

FOES CITE INFRASTRUCTURE UPGRADE

But opponents, including the Mills administration, noted that a more than $1 million upgrade the Passamaquoddy Water District’s filtration system is set to be installed this summer and will improve water quality. Republican opponents described the issue as one of poor infrastructure rather that a matter of jurisdiction.

Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, opposed the bill on process grounds, saying it would set a bad precedent.

“We have never changed a water charter because a customer asked for it, but only because the trustees on the board have asked for,” Libby said. “In this case the customer never went to the trustees and went through that process.”

Maine Tribes have fewer rights than all of the 570 other federally recognized tribes in the United States because of the settlement acts, a pair of federal and state laws passed in 1980 to settle a tribal land claim to two-thirds of the territory of the state of Maine. Under the agreements, tribes in Maine are treated more like municipalities than sovereign nations.

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Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, represents the part of the state that includes the tribal community, as well as the residents of Perry and Eastport, who use the same water supply. She said Maine is falling short of its commitment to treat tribes like a municipality, because the town of Perry is allowed to have input on water extraction on tribal lands.

“One municipality does not do that to another,” Perry said. “If they were a true municipality, we would not have this issue coming before us.”

“It was a difficult issue for me because I’m dealing with two constituencies,” she continued. “But I can do nothing else but vote for this, because this is the right that these people should have because they are a tribal nation and should be sovereign.”

A SMALL STEP

For some lawmakers, the bill was a small step toward fixing a longstanding injustice.

“‘It’s going to take some sacrifices,” said Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, who said the dispute was over property taxes for 55 acres of land the tribe already owns. “Fifty-five acres? The state of Maine stole 15 million acres from the Wabanaki nations.”

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Established in 1983, the Passamaquoddy Water District provides drinking water to Pleasant Point and the neighboring towns of Perry and Eastport. Water is drawn from Boyden Lake, and the district treats and distributes an average of 200,000 gallons a day through 21 miles of pipes, serving 618 year-round customers.

In testimony this year, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged the challenges in maintaining water quality in a shallow waterbody like Boyden Lake. The agency noted the existence of high organic content that changes rapidly with wind and rain.

The bill, L.D. 906, would exempt the Passamaquoddy Water District, a nontribal entity, from having to pay property taxes. It is the only water district in the state not exempted, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. A tribal attorney speculated that it could be related to the fact that the tribes helped finance the creation of the district.

In order to allow for the development of alternative groundwater supplies, the bill authorizes two parcels of tribally owned land in Perry close to the Passamaquoddy Indian territory to be added to its territory through the federal trust acquisition process without local approval.

If approved, the tribe would be allowed to drill wells on land it owns without first getting the permission from other communities or the state. Primary authority to regulate drinking water standards would shift from the state to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

‘A VOTE FOR CLEAN WATER’

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But opponents pointed to an example where three wells in the neighboring town of Perry went dry after the tribe drilled a well nearby. Although the federal government stepped in and drilled new wells for the residents, Republicans worried about it happening gain.

The Mills administration has said it supports provisions of the bill that would exempt the district from property taxes, which could save about $100,000 a year, and the land acquisition portion. But it opposes giving the tribe more control over the water district.

Rep. Thomas Martin, R-Greene, was one of 23 Republicans to join Democrats and independents to support the bill.

“This bill definitely boils down to a vote for clean water,” Martin said.

While some Republicans raised concerns about the bill changing Maine’s settlement agreement, Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, noted that he was serving in the Legislature when the agreement was approved in the 1980s.

“This issue was not discussed,” Martin said. “If it had been, it would have been agreed to, without any question.”

This story has been updated at 9:20 a.m. on April 13 to correct Rep. Martin’s first name.


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