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Maine Senate approves Passamaquoddy clean water bill, but it still risks Mills veto

Nick Woodward
Maine Public file
Plansowes Dana, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and staffer for Wabanaki Public Health & Wellness, fills jugs of spring water in Robbinston to bring back to the Pleasant Point Reservation in July 2021.

The Maine Senate gave initial approval today to a bill aimed at improving the drinking water for 300 Passamaquoddy families near Eastport.

The Senate voted 21-11 to support the bill, a decisive margin but two votes short of the supermajority that would be needed if Gov. Janet Mills vetoes the measure.

Supporters of the bill hope big majorities might persuade the governor to drop her concerns that the proposal creates jurisdictional issues with neighboring towns and let the bill become law upon enactment.

Democratic Sen. Craig Hickman, of Winthrop, attempted to address the jurisdictional concerns head-on during his floor speech. He framed the issue as a human rights one and another example of the state's heavy hand in tribal matters.

"We have a tribal nation and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) ready to step up and help this community in need today. The state of Maine must set aside her painful paternalism toward the tribes and get out of the way," he said. "Put another way, as my wise mother was want to say, on this matter before us Maine needs to go sit down somewhere and be quiet."

The Passamaquoddy tribe at Sipayik has said its water supply is contaminated and has been unsafe to drink for the last 40 years.

The House-passed bill would allow the tribe to work directly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate and secure clean drinking water.

It would also allow the tribe to access two pieces of its own land without municipal approval, where the tribe could dig new wells.

Another provision in the bill would help the tribe pay for the wells: It removes a requirement that the Passamaquoddy Water District pay property taxes — a requirement that no other water district in Maine has.

The House gave supermajority approval to the bill on Tuesday, but both chambers would be needed to override the governor if she vetoes the bill.