House Committee rejects EPA-tribal cooperation

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - The House appropriations committee charged with providing funds for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denied increases in appropriations for tribal programs and important authorization language for agency-tribal agreements.

Under the administration budget, the EPA had requested an increase of $18.4 million for tribal programs and important new authority language for cooperative agreements. The funds were part of the FY2001 appropriations bill for the Veterans Administration, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies.

The funding increases were intended for the EPA's General Assistance program, which helps tribes meet requirements of laws like the Clean Water Act. The agreements provide tribes with funds to meet EPA and other environmental regulations in ways tailored to each tribe.

"Cooperative agreement funding between the EPA and interested tribes will offer a creative approach to federal program administration," wrote Susan Masten, president of the National Congress of American Indians, in an open letter to Congress. "We believe that the Committee may not have been fully informed of the advantages and benefits of this provision for environmental protection on Indian reservations."

Tribes say the importance of these programs is their direct affect on the community. General Assistance is responsible for programs which include wastewater treatment and environmental cleanup. For example, the EPA's wastewater treatment funds provide many of the basic sanitation services which tribes now have. The agency reports that the wastewater treatment program funds approximately 2,500 sanitation hookups.

Though a far cry from meeting current needs in Indian country, this funding through the General Assistance Program has proven invaluable to the communities it serves, they say. Administration officials say the funding levels proposed for FY2001 would extend sanitation services to more than 4,000 units. Proposed language would also have increased the funding cap for tribal involvement in funds allocated under clean water laws from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent.

The House Committee rejected these increases, voting June 7 to maintain current funding levels.

Of great concern to tribes, is the committee rejection of language the administration included to expand cooperative agreements between the EPA and tribal governments. In passing the appropriations bill, the committee did not include this provision.

The cooperative agreements would allow each tribe to develop its own methods and programs to deal with tribal, state, and federal environmental law. Through local tribal management, these agreements would enable tribes to improve environmental protection through a greater ability to manage lands and enact tribal environmental codes. The agreements also would give tribes more power to decide how to fulfill environmental regulations.

These agreements have helped tribes improve their ability to work with states. Since enactment of clean water laws there have been some tensions and misunderstandings between states and tribes regarding jurisdiction and enforcement of environmental law, yet tribes and states have been able to work together.

Tribal leaders, like Masten, say cooperative agreements addressed many of these ambiguities and prevented problems.

"This approach enhances the likelihood of greater cooperation relative to on reservation enforcement of environmental statutes," Masten said. "We also believe it may help prevent some of the frictions that at times have developed between tribes and states over environmental issues. Cooperative agreement funding is an effective and appropriate way to accomplish this."

Tribal leaders are looking to preserve the funding increases and cooperative agreement language in the Senate appropriations bill that is now up for consideration. The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on the bill in the next two weeks.