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Health

Clean drinking water bill for Passamaquoddy tribe draws a crowd

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Nicole Ogrysko
/
Maine Public
The rally brought hundreds of people, including Passamaquoddy citizens, Sipayik elementary and Penobscot Nation students and other supporters, to the State House on Monday, April 11, 2022.

As the legislative session winds down, hundreds of people gathered outside the State House in Augusta on Monday to raise awareness about a bill they hope will get attention from lawmakers with a lengthy to-do list this week.

The bill is designed to improve drinking water for the Passamaquoddy tribe at Sipayik near Eastport, a decades-long fight that tribal leaders and supporters say is long-overdue.

The rally brought hundreds of people, including Passamaquoddy citizens, Sipayik elementary and Penobscot Nation students and other supporters, to the State House.

Tribal members say the water they receive from the state-chartered public utility Passamaquoddy Water District is unsafe to drink, and it consistently has a bad smell and taste. The tribe has delivered bottled water to some households, dug new wells on tribal land and secured drinkable water for students at the reservation's school.

Sipayik Chief Maggie Dana says her tribe has been living with these challenges for more than 40 years.

"Our people have lived generations with unsafe, dirty drinking water," she said. "We have been harmed by our water. Our culture is clear: Water is life. For the Passamaquoddy people at Sipayik, it is poisoned."

The bill pending before the legislature would allow the Passamaquoddy tribe to regulate its own drinking water and work directly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to find new sources of clean water. It would also exempt the Passamaquoddy Water District from paying property taxes, an arrangement that most other water districts in Maine have today.

Tribal leaders and other advocates say the legislation would bring much-needed attention and federal resources to the drinking water problem, resources that haven't previously been available due to the decades-old settlement agreement tribes in Maine have with the state.

Tribal representative Rena Newell is the original sponsor of LD 906.

"Let our message be heard," tribal representative Rena Newell, the bill's original sponsor, said. "Through your presence here on unceded indigenous land, to which this state house sits upon, that we are here to tell members of the House and Senate to pass LD 906."

Tribal leaders say the bill has a lot of support both in and outside the state house but believe it may be an uphill battle to enact it. The Mills administration has questioned whether the legislation would create jurisdictional issues for nearby Eastport, which also receives its water from the Passamaquoddy Water District.

Tribal members say they simply want to regulate their own water, which they can't do today under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980.

Several bills, including one that would restore sovereignty to Maine's Wabanaki tribes and another that would give them the rights to operate mobile sports betting enterprises, are still pending in the legislature.

LD 906 may get a vote in the legislature later this week.