The Penobscot Indian Nation, located near Old Town, Maine, has subsisted on the Penobscot River for thousands of years. The river has provided them with food, water, recreation, and a sense of spiritual well-being. For the last century and a half, pollution has accumulated in the river from a number of companies dumping their production waste into the river, most notably pulp and paper companies and wastewater treatment plants. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and mercury are the pollutants currently generating the most concern. Beginning in 1987, the state of Maine recommended that the Penobscot tribe limit their fish consumption. Today, it is recommended that tribal members eat no more than one serving of fish from the river per week or per month (depending on the species of fish, and where in the river it was caught). The tribe has been fighting to gain the rights to impose their own water quality standards on polluters off the reservation; standards strict enough so that they can safely consume fish at a subsistence level.
EPA is the tribe's main adversary, but also their potential ally. It is they who have given the Maine Department of Environmental Protection full rights to administer effluent waste permits to polluters in Maine, exempting these sources from the usual requirement of applying for a NPDES permit. Wastewater treatment plants and paper companies are content with the current situation, and according to the state of Maine, are meeting current water quality standards. Aside from the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, a non-profit organization working to remove some of the dams on the river and restore fish populations, there is no organization devoting its time and resources to finding a solution to this problem, despite the strong beliefs of tribal members and some local non-Indians that the current water quality standards are insufficient. Read more about all of the involved parties in the "Who" section of my case study.
The Penosbcots believe that, because they are a sovereign nation, they should have the right to decide how much pollution runs through their waters, and to impose restrictions on anyone who might effect this pollution. EPA has asserted that the state of Maine has the rights to control water quality on the reservation, due to the referral to the tribe as a Maine state municipality in the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980. Read more about these conflicting characterizations of the issue in the "What" section of my case study.
The issue has made it into the courts twice thus far, and the courts have not yet sided with the tribe on the issue. Local newspapers have tended to portray the issue wrongly as the tribe's desire for more money, making it difficult for the tribe to gain support. Read more about the venues through which the issue has been shaped in the "Where" section of my case study.
After losing in court, the tribe is hoping that a grant from EPA to conduct a study on bioaccumulation in subsistence river species could somehow lead to increased water quality standards. Dan Kusnierz, Director of Water Quality for the tribe, believes the main issue to be the fact that, when setting water quality standards, EPA does not survey the tribe on how much they feel they should be able to eat, but how much they are eating (which isn't much, due to the fish advisory). See the "How" section of my case study for more information on how the issue might be resolved from multiple perspectives.
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