Danaeh Neptune-Miliano fills up water jugs at a well in Robbinston as part of the Wabanaki Public Health’s efforts to bring clean water to the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik. Credit: Kylie Tompkins
UPDATE 4/21/22: LD 906 has been signed into law!
UPDATE 4/15/22: LD 906 has been overwhelmingly approved by the Maine House and Senate and Gov. Mills has indicated that she will sign it upon inclusion of some clarifying language that will not alter the bill. The Sipayik Tribal Government has agreed to add this clarifying language. The amended bill will receive another vote in the Legislature on Monday, April 18.
Legislators have passed a bill that could finally bring clean drinking water to the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik (Pleasant Point) after a 40-year struggle to address contamination in the water supply from the Passamaquoddy Water District and hundreds of supporters held a rally in Augusta on Monday, April 11.
The Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik has lacked dependable access to clean drinking water from the Passamaquoddy Water District (PWD) for more than 40 years. PWD, which also provides drinking water to neighboring Eastport, currently sources water from Boyden Lake, which is heavily used for boating and swimming.
Decomposing organic matter that settles on the bottom of the lake affects water quality, which also fluctuates due to disturbance by wind, rain and agricultural runoff. As a result, water pumped from the reservoir has been consistently tainted by bad odor, poor taste, and discoloration. Tests of the water supply in 2018 and 2019 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found dangerously high levels of trihalomethanes (THMs), toxic chemicals that form when chlorine used to disinfect the water breaks down. THMs are a known carcinogen and long-term exposure can cause liver, kidney and central nervous system problems and an increased risk of cancer. According to the EPA, THM levels in the PWD water supply exceeded the federal THM limit of 80 parts per billion for nine months during each of those years.
Due to restrictions in the 1980 Settlement Acts, the Passamaquoddy Tribe is unable to fully utilize federal funds and remediation resources, assistance that is available to all federally recognized tribes except the four Wabanaki tribes in Maine. The tribe has taken a number of steps to minimize health risks from the tainted water, including delivering bottled water to households, providing students and staff at the on-reservation school with potable water, and securing grants to support increased testing, the digging of new wells on tribal land, and improving the PWD infrastructure. But these are not permanent fixes and tribal members still lack access to safe drinking water.
LD 906, a bill sponsored by Rep. Rena Newell (Passamaquoddy Tribe), will remove jurisdictional roadblocks and provide more long-term solutions to this public health threat. It will exempt the Passamaquoddy Water District from property taxes, aligning it with all the other water districts in Maine and providing extra revenue to address water quality challenges. The bill will also allow the tribe to access fee lands already in its possession that are near the Sipayik Reservation, where new wells have already been dug. And it will remove restrictions in the Settlement Acts, giving the Passamaquoddy Tribe an opportunity to build capacity for safe drinking water and to regulate its own drinking water under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in coordination with the EPA.
The Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on LD 906 on February 17 and received more than 200 letters of testimony, almost all in support of the legislation. (Read the public testimony.) On Monday, April 11, hundreds of bill supporters held a rally in Augusta on Monday, April 11. Later that week, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill. (See how your legislators voted.) Gov. Mills has indicated that she will sign it upon inclusion of some clarifying language that will not alter the bill. The Sipayik Tribal Government has agreed to add this clarifying language. The amended bill will receive another vote in the Legislature on Monday, April 18.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
- Contact your legislators. An amended version of LD 906 will go back to the House and Senate for votes on Monday, April 18. Contact your legislators and tell them you believe that all Mainers deserve clean drinking water and ask them to support LD 906. Find your legislators here.
KEY TALKING POINTS
- L.D. 906 is about access to clean drinking water, which is a human right.
- This legislation is NOT about imposing new restrictions or standards on the off-reservation Passamaquoddy Water District. The Passamaquoddy Tribe would not have authority to do so under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). This seems to be a key concern of individuals opposing the jurisdictional aspect of the bill, but the concern is not based in fact.
- To the contrary, L.D. 906, is about the Tribe’s ability to access water on its lands, and to work with the EPA to license and guarantee tribal member access to new sources of drinking water on tribal lands WITHOUT THE NEED FOR STATE APPROVAL.
- To be clear, the jurisdictional provisions in the bill are about accessing and protecting sources of safe drinking water that are located entirely within Passamaquoddy Indian territory. There are two community wells located on tribal lands that the EPA and Tribe would be able to immediately regulate if this legislation passed.
- If L.D. 906 passes, the Tribe would work directly with the federal EPA to utilize and regulate new sources of clean drinking water. The shift will bring undivided attention of EPA Region 1 to Passamaquoddy lands, in a way that is simply not possible now. Dedicated resources would be made specifically available to deal with safe drinking water issues at Sipayik.
- Enacting LD 906 would open the door to new federal funding opportunities, which have never been available in tribal communities in Maine before.
- LD 906 would give PWD critically needed financial support. PWD is the only water district in Maine that currently pays property taxes. The bill exempts PWD from paying these taxes moving forward, so it will be better equipped to cover operating costs associated with water quality upgrades. This is a matter of fairness and common sense.
- LD 906 protects access to new groundwater sources of water that can serve tribal and non-tribal PWD customers.
- Passamaquoddy citizens at Pleasant Point and residents of surrounding areas need clean and safe water. The Tribe is working to build a better world for tribal members and Mainers as a whole, some of whom have never had access to clean water in their lives.