Mohawks' clean air plan gets first EPA approval

Agency lauds tribe's 'environmental leadership'

AKWESASNE, N.Y. - The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's efforts to protect air quality on tribal lands under the federal Clean Air Act have been given a boost with a landmark approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

St. Regis Mohawk's Tribal Implementation Plan, or TIP, is the first tribal clean air plan in the country to be approved by the federal agency. That approval gives the tribe the same status as a state in dealing with air quality programs.

''Federal approval of our TIP is a significant achievement for the tribe since it signals both our commitment and longstanding efforts to protect and preserve our environment, including the air,'' the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council said in a prepared statement Oct. 22 when the approval was signed.

The tribe's TIP includes a set of federally enforceable regulatory programs that identify how the tribe will reduce principal air pollutants identified by the EPA, and maintain standards of air quality in line with the tribe's clean air policy.

The tribe's clean air policy is to ''maintain a reasonable degree of purity of Tribal Air resources, which shall be consistent with the public health and welfare and public enjoyment thereof, the industrial development of the Reservation, the propagation and protection of flora and fauna, and the protection of physical property and other resources, and to that end to require the use of all available practical and reasonable methods to control air pollution on the reservation,'' according to its Web site.

''By formally adopting this comprehensive plan to combat air pollution, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has demonstrated environmental leadership in the greatest of Akwesasne traditions. In order to continue the progress toward healthy air, we will need more leadership like that of this tribe, because air pollution knows no borders,'' Alan Steinberg, the EPA regional administrator, said in a prepared statement.

The tribe's territory is located in northern New York state and overlaps the international border with Canada. On the U.S. side, the tribal land consists of around 14,600 acres of mostly unused agricultural land and wetlands. The use of both the land and rivers, which had been used to provide an income for tribal members through guide fishing and fish marketing, have been degraded through industrial emissions and pollution.

There are several major industries in the area, EPA spokesman Rich Cahill told Indian Country Today.

''There's aluminum manufacturing, and GM has a plant up there. There is industrial activity, and this EPA approval allows the tribe to have a say in what type of activities - any new activity - should go on up there; and also the tribe will be able to comment on permits that existing facilities would apply for,'' he said.

The industries emit particulate matter, ozone-forming nitrogen oxides and other pollutants may trigger asthma and cause other serious respiratory illnesses and other harmful health effects.

The tribe's new clout in reducing air pollution in the area is especially important now, ''since we have seen marked increases in recent years in the incidence of asthma and upper respiratory illnesses in our people,'' the tribal council said. ''As Mohawks, we are obligated to uphold the highest environmental standards for future generations. We must also credit our stalwart team in the Tribe's Environment Division for leading the charge in this area.''

The EPA approval comes after eight years of work on the TIP, ''but, really, the tribe's air quality program has been in place since 1990,'' tribal spokesman Leslie Logan said.

The TIP, which is available online at www.srmtenv.org/pdf_files/airtip.pdf, is part of a broad, ambitious air quality management program that includes monitoring air quality standards for sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and other sources of pollution; enforcing limits on pollutants; inventorying emission sources; issuing operating permits for facilities; and addressing indoor air pollution.

Under the Clean Air Act, tribal nations that meet eligibility standards and receive EPA approval gain the same status as a state for the purpose of developing clean air plans.

''For example, let's say a company wanted to manufacture a new product and there would be the possibility of a new pollutant emitted from their stack and they need to revise their permit. The tribe would have the opportunity to comment and try to shape the permit to be sure there would be no aggravation of air quality,'' Cahill said.

The EPA approval recognizes that St. Regis has a say in determining what kinds of limits would be established on any type of operation that would emit air pollution.

''So, they have the right of approval on permits and also on plans that would reduce pollution. They have the right to intervene in permitting. They tribe would have the authority in general, for example, on mobile sources like cars, trucks and buses. They have a lot more say in what would go on in terms of what was being emitted into the air around them and within their borders. It's a definite plus. It was done previously through third parties, but now they have more authority under this plan, so it certainly makes them a player at the table,'' Cahill said.

According to the TIP, the tribe's air quality program can evaluate and comment on air permit notices and draft permits for facilities located in areas contiguous to or within 50 miles of the reservation where air emissions may affect air quality on the reservation.

Working in partnership with the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment, the tribe received an EPA Environmental Quality Award earlier this year for its accomplishments, which included scientific research, information dissemination, partnership building, and the planting of 33,000 tress, including 15,000 Black Ask which are used in ceremony and basket-making.