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Coincidence or not, Maine tribes on alert


INDIAN TOWNSHIP, Maine - Suspicious about an unusual spate of calls from state inspectors, several Maine tribes are telling the state Department of Environmental Protection they no longer recognize its jurisdiction.

Three attempted visits to the Passamaquoddy Indian Township Reservation came during a two-week period ending Dec. 6, just as tribal leaders asserted their sovereignty in a face-to-face meeting with firmly disagreeing Maine Gov. Angus King. Tribal leaders, saying they feared a hidden agenda, denied access to the reservations.

But the state agents professed bewilderment, saying the timing of the inspections was pure coincidence. The agents claimed to be unaware of each other's activities, as well as of the political crisis into which they stumbled.

"The fact is we don't coordinate with each other as much as we should," said David Wright of the DEP's sludge disposal unit, supervisor of one of the inspectors.

The incident reflects the tensions created by a lawsuit of three large paper companies against the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribal governments for access to their internal documents on water quality regulation. Three tribal governors were threatened with a contempt of court penalty of a year in jail for refusing to hand over the papers. (The sentences were averted by an appeal to the state Supreme Court.)

The suit is part of a larger controversy over the state of Maine's request to take over federal wastewater discharge permits. The tribes want the federal Environmental Protection Agency to keep control of the rivers washing their lands.

With this background, two Passamaquoddy governments flatly rejected state attempts to inspect their wastewater operations. Indian Township Gov. Richard Stevens declared his territory didn't accept state DEP jurisdiction. The Penobscot Nation holds a state permit for its waste treatment plant at the Indian Island reserve, a large island in the Penobscot River. But after hearing of the Passamaquoddy situation, Gov. Barry Dana scheduled a meeting with tribal counsel and environmental officers to review relations with the DEP.

Trevor White, environmental director at the Passamaquoddy Indian Township reservation, said the first call came Nov. 27 from a consultant named Mark Goodwin. Working for a firm called Northern Ecological Associates, Goodwin asked to see the permit for the "outfall" pipe from the wastewater plant and then to view the pipe itself. White notified Gov. Stevens and Lt. Gov. Phyllis Saunders and was ordered not to give the visitor access to the tribe's records.

White said he met Goodwin at the door and told him the tribe no longer had an outfall permit because it had switched to a different system of disposing of wastewater (using it to spray irrigate a field with restricted access). When Goodwin pointed to a permit number in his log, White said the EPA had decided the tribe didn't need a permit for that system.

White said he then told his visitor, "The tribe does not recognize the authority of the state of Maine over anything that affects the health and welfare of tribal members."

"With that," he said, "I asked him to leave the reservation."

A week later, on Dec. 4, White said the tribe received a call directly from the Maine DEP. Agent Rick Hafner wanted to inspect the tribe's wastewater disposal site with a view to renewing the original permit, which expired in 1990. White said he replied that the tribe would listen to technical assistance, but wouldn't be agreeing to a permit.

"After that there was another call from the DEP," White said. Yet another agent from another department, Bob Stratton of waste discharge licensing, called Dec. 6 to say that he and two other agents wanted to inspect the spray irrigation field so they could renew a state discharge license that expired in August 1999.

Once again, White said he repeated that the tribe did not recognize the authority of the state of Maine. "I understand that stirred up a hornet's nest at the DEP. Memos are flying all over the place."

White, who said he has been employed by the Passamaquoddys for three and a half years, concluded, "In all my time working for the tribe, I have never had this much attention from the (Maine) DEP."

In the meantime, the consultant Goodwin went to the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point reserve, where the director of the wastewater treatment plant refused to give him a copy of its permit and told him to get it from the DEP headquarters in Augusta.

It turned out the call that started it all may indeed have been coincidence.

Goodwin wasn't available but his bewildered colleagues at Northern Ecological Associates said they were reviewing the pipe permits as part of a global positioning survey funded by the EPA. Their DEP supervisor, John Lynam, a Geographical Information Systems analyst, said the project was three years old and was attempting to fix the exact location of a thousand discharge pipes around the state.

Lynam said the surveyors asked for permit numbers only for the sake of coordinating the state and EPA database. He said standing orders were to leave immediately if anyone refused cooperation. Goodwin just happened to be touring the northern part of the state, Lynam said.

He added that he hadn't reported Goodwin's misadventure to the higher echelons and DEP and hadn't even decided what to do about it.

The inspectors from the two DEP agencies were out in the field and couldn't be reached, but Rick Hafner's supervisor, expanded the bureaucratic confusion. David Wright in the Augusta DEP headquarters said he just learned about Hafner's call, since that agent worked from the Bangor office, a two-hour drive away.

On the other hand, he admitted he didn't know what Stratton was doing, even though the water discharge agent worked in the same building.

He said the staff level at DEP had generally good relations with the tribes. "We all have the same goals. We tend to work real well together."

An important issue like sovereignty, he said, was the business of "the higher-ups in the department."

Whatever the cause of the visits, they injected state DEP permitting into Maine's on-going tribal sovereignty crisis.

"At the least, it gives the tribes a heads up on the issue," said Susan Hammond, spokesperson for the Penobscot Nation.