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Maine tribes in limbo after EPA ruling

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AUGUSTA, Maine - The federal government handed regulation of water-discharge permitting to state environmental authorities - with some glaring exceptions.

Environmental Protection Agency action does not cover 22 permits issues for areas near tribal lands in Maine, where jurisdiction on water issues remains in dispute, Peyton Fleming of the regional office in Boston said.

The agency granted state government the power to issue water discharge permits everywhere except Indian country. And, it reserved a decision on whether to keep control of rivers crucial to the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes and prepared to ask the U.S. Department of Justice for a ruling on the hotly contested question of state jurisdiction over the tribes.

"Not too long ago, we were more hopeful," Penobscot Gov. Barry Dana said after the Jan. 17 decision. "As of yesterday, we were less hopeful."

The Penobscot Nation will be host to an environmental summit Jan. 24 at the Sockalexis Center on Indian Island. The "Honoring the Gift of Living Rivers: Bringing Rivers Back to the People" summit is cosponsored by the Passamaquoddy, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Aroostook Band of MicMacs and the Maine Rivers Agenda coalition of non-Indian groups.

Dana has asked those who attend to bring water from their watersheds to mix with water from across Maine, to be blessed in closing ceremonies and returned, by the guests, to their watersheds.

The mixed waters will show "the shared understanding that rivers are the lifeblood of the communities that coexist with these rivers," he said.

The tribes want the EPA to maintain control over water quality near their lands. It has retained its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System power for Indian territory in all but one of the 44 states that took over the program. Maine tribes say they fear the power of large paper companies in state politics.

Fear of tribal control, direct or otherwise, is widely believed to underlie a paper company lawsuit that has entangled three tribal governors in a contempt of court charge.

Dana, Richard M. Doyle of the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy and Richard Stevens of the Passamaquoddy Indian Township Reservation face one-year jail terms and $1,000 a day fines for refusing to turn over tribal environmental records in a Freedom of Access suit brought by three paper companies.