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Paper-waste war is about tribal control

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PORTLAND, Maine - In a fight about "who has power over whom," the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe are telling the Maine Supreme Court that only federal courts can decide their running dispute with three paper companies.

If the Maine Court refuses to reconsider its recent ruling dismissing tribal sovereignty, the tribes say in court papers filed May 15, they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, which raises the basic issue of the degree of state government control over the tribes, started as a paper company's "freedom of access" request for tribal documents.

Tribal leaders emphasized the "enormous" significance of the case. "This is about control of our reservations," Penobscot Chief Barry Dana said.

"Paper mills have polluted our reservations for years. We doubt this is really about documents. It's about the mills' right to pollute the waters our people have occupied for thousands of years; the waters which bear our name."

Added Penobscot Nation attorney Mark Chavaree, "Water quality aside, this is an age-old tension between the federal, tribe and state governments.

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"This is about who has power over whom. The federal court should be the referee when it comes to disputes about the state's authority over tribes."

Passamaquoddy Gov. Rick Doyle said the paper companies "want the state courts to control the issue and make us municipalities."

As a sign of the stakes involved, the U.S. earlier this month launched a separate claim against Lincoln Pulp and Paper for up to $60 million in harm caused to the Penobscot River and the island-based Penobscot Nation from polluted discharges, including the cancer-causing dioxin. Lincoln Pulp and Paper, now in bankruptcy proceedings, isn't one of the paper companies suing for access to tribal records.

The three plaintiffs in the year-old access case are Great Northern Paper Inc., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and Champion International Corp., three of Maine's largest paper companies.

The tribes say that all of these companies discharge mill waste affecting reservation waters.