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LePage Asks Maine Delegation to Intervene in Tribal Waters Dispute with Feds

AUGUSTA, Maine - As the impasse between Maine and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over water quality standards deepens, the LePage administration is threatening to relinquish some or all of the state's delegated authority to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patty Aho has informed the EPA that its new regulations for tribal waters amount to a de facto federalization of the Maine's monitoring program. Meanwhile, Gov. Paul LePage is asking the state's congressional delegation to intervene in the EPA dispute.

At issue is the EPA's interest in establishing tighter water regulations for tribal waters where sustenance fishing is essential to native culture. But critics say the result would be the creation of a two-tiered system of standards in the state. And the LePage administration is now threatening to abandon its delegated authority role under the Clean Water Act if the feds persist in imposing standards that it says are arbitrary and unreasonable.

That could leave the state without a water quality staff to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act by Maine industries. And Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, says that's not in the state's best interests. "It would likely have very serious consequences for water quality, especially in the short term," Bennett said.

In letters to the regional EPA administrator and the state's congressional delegation this week, outgoing state Department of Environmental Protection Agency Commissioner Patty Aho and Gov. Paul LePage outlined their frustrations with federal regulators. Maine currently has a pending lawsuit against the EPA. Supported by the Maine Attorney General's Office, the administration points ot that previous water quality standards in place for many years had been perfectly acceptable to the EPA.

LePage warned members of Maine's congressional delegation that the state may ask the fed to assume full control if they are so intent on changing rules mid-stream. And in her letter, Aho says imposition of new federal water quality standards amounts to a de facto federalization of the program that has been overseen by the state.

But Ken Moraff, regional director for the EPA's water program, says his agency wants to work with Maine to end the ongoing dispute. Still, he also says the LePage administration has to accept the EPA's requirement that water quality in tribal fishing areas meet the minimum standards of  the Clean Water Act.

"We would like to work cooperatively - we believe there is potential to do that as long as Maine is willing to address these issues," Moraff says. "We need Maine to do what we ask every state to do, which is to meet the basic requirements of the Clean Water Act. There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to work with Maine DEP the way we work with every other environmental department in New England and across the country to meet those basic requirements. So we're hopeful we have a chance to sit across the table and talk these issues through."

That's not how the governor sees it. And in his letter to the congressional delegation, LePage says the EPA seemed to be applying a one-size-fits-all model in Maine. But Moraff says that's not the case.

"Every water body in Maine has a set of standards that apply to it that reflect the uses of that water body," Moraff says. "There are specific water bodies in Maine where tribal members have rights that are granted to them by state and federal law for sustenance fishing. So the water quality standards for those waters have to protect those rights."

At the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Nick Bennett says the state has an obligation to ensure water quality, not only for the tribes, but for all Mainers. And he says everyone would lose if the state abandons its delegated authority under the Clean Water Act.

"There wouldn't be people to do the important work of writing permits or monitoring the water quality, of making sure that discharges are meeting their licenses," Bennett says. "I think this also potentially has a negative impact on Maine businesses that would have regulatory certainty greatly reduced. They would end up having to work with different people on their permits, instead of the DEP staff that they've been working with for almost two decades."

Calls to the LePage administration seeking comment for this story were not returned.