Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, speaks during a debate on L.D. 906 “An Act To Provide Passamaquoddy Tribal Members Access to Clean Drinking Water” in the morning session Wednesday, April 13, 2022, at the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The Passamaquoddy Tribe is a step closer to being able to regulate its own drinking water.

The Maine Senate voted 22-11 Wednesday in favor of a bill that would give the federally recognized tribe the authority to secure safe drinking water for its Pleasant Point reservation, or Sipayik, which is home to about 700 tribal members living near the Canadian border. The House had approved it Tuesday.

A heated 50-minute debate touching upon tribal sovereignty, human rights and racism preceded the Senate vote. Supporters argued the bill would enable the tribe to help itself to its own clean water. Opponents called it a local dispute that could be solved without hurting neighboring towns.

“We all need clean drinking water, everyone in our state,” said Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth. “I ask my colleagues to be future- and solution-oriented in considering this legislation. (It) is a clear and implementable path to getting clean drinking water to the Passamaquoddy Tribe.”

But critics warned the bill would go well beyond clean drinking water, and involve taking tribally owned land located in Perry off the local tax rolls and putting it into federal trust so the tribe could work directly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to drill drinking wells there.

“Before we transfer land from the town of Perry to the reservation I feel we should press the pause button,” said Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais. She encouraged the parties to work together “in a collaborative manner with open and mutually respectful communication.”

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Currently, the Passamaquoddy Water District has jurisdiction over lands that include both reservation lands and the town of Perry. Before landowners on the reservation can drill a well, they must get permission from the district and the state. The bill would effectively allow the tribe to drill wells to create a new source of drinking water for the district.

Supporters claim the tribe has been trying to solve its water woes for a long time. They talked about how water conditions were so bad that reservation students weren’t allowed to drink from the water fountains in their old school.

“With all due respect to my seatmate, I would say the pause button has been pushed,” Sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Scarborough, told Moore. The “tribe does not have access to clean water because it has been leading a multi-year, multi-stakeholder effort to solve this complicated problem.”

But Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, contended the tribe refused to give neighboring towns a chance to work out a solution before coming to the Legislature for a work-around that would, for the first time, remove land from the local tax rolls without the municipality giving its consent.

“I would ask that we would consider the precedent we are setting,” Keim said. “That we would overstep the process that we have established for good reason, to safeguard the rights of everyone, of all Maine people, of not only some.”

Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, urged Maine to do the right thing and get out of the tribe’s way so it can solve its own drinking water problem. He described the current situation, where a neighbor is allowed to deny the tribe the right to clean drinking water, as a human rights violation.

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“Imagine that you have access to the solution to your problem right in your own backyard on your own land, but when you tried to access that solution, your neighbor and the government said you need our approval to use what you own,” Hickman said. “How would you feel?”

The vote follows on the heels of a 103-35 House vote Tuesday and a political protest Monday that drew 300 people to the State House in support L.D. 906, the clean water bill. The bill is likely headed next to Gov. Janet Mills, who has expressed some reservations.

Mills did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but the administration has said it opposes giving the tribe more control over the water district that not only serves the reservation, but the neighboring town of Perry and city of Eastport.

Mills has vetoed 33 bills since she took office in January 2021. The Legislature has yet to obtain the two-thirds majority vote of members present required to override a Mills veto.

The House vote suggests the bill is veto proof in that chamber, but the Senate vote fell one vote shy of the override margin needed. There were two people absent from Wednesday’s vote, however, and both were Democrats – every other Senate Democrat voted in favor of L.D. 906.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe and other federally recognized tribes in Maine have long sought to regain their sovereignty, which has been limited by a unique settlement agreement with the state and the federal government in the 1980s.

The Legislature is considering bills to restore sovereignty and give mobile sports betting to tribes.

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