Janet Mills speaks to supporters at her election night victory party, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Elise Amendola | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s top environmental lawyer won a legislative panel’s approval on Wednesday to run the state Department of Environmental Protection despite opposition from members of the Penobscot Nation and others wary of his stances on tribal water rights.

The confirmation hearing for Jerry Reid of Harpswell was the first controversial one for Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, whose first seven nominees for commissioner slots won unanimous votes in easy hearings before legislative committees on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Mills nominated Reid to run the Maine Department of Environmental Protection after 25 years in the attorney general’s office. After a hearing that stretched almost six hours, he was endorsed unanimously by the Legislature’s environmental committee.

For the past 11 years, he was chief of the natural resources division, serving under Mills when she was attorney general. He was at the center of raw legal fights between the state and tribes. A federal court in 2017 upheld a state-backed ruling against the Penobscot Nation holding that the tribe’s reservation includes islands in the Penobscot River, but not the water around them.

The state sued the federal government in 2014 over strict federal water quality standards that tribes supported and will be reworked by the administration of President Donald Trump. It sided with Washington in a U.S. Supreme Court case over water quality and tribal fishing rights.

Criticism over those stances was an issue early in Mills’ primary campaign for governor, but Mills has made repairing relationships with Maine tribes a priority early in her administration. She recently hired Donna Loring, a former Penobscot Nation police chief and tribal state representative, as her liaison to the state’s four federally recognized tribes.

On Wednesday, Reid said his role in those cases was “a function of his job” and pledged support for a legislative package being worked on by the Penobscot Nation and environmental groups that would upgrade water quality standards on Maine rivers and streams and to propose new standards for the main stem of the Penobscot River.

“I understand that, if confirmed, it will take time to build greater trust and I look forward to the opportunity to do that and will pursue it with goodwill and in good faith,” Reid said.

Reid won wide support from environmental groups — including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Conservation Law Foundation and Maine Conservation Voters — at his hearing. The Sierra Club, members of the Penobscot Nation and some progressives opposed him.

“My question to this committee is whether someone who has demonstrated a willingness in three separate legal actions to compromise the quality of Maine’s water can be trusted with such responsibility,” said Sherri Mitchell of Hampden, a lawyer and activist raised on the Penobscot reservation.

Commissioner candidates must be approved by the Maine Senate before taking their offices, with 13 of Mills’ 14 nominees having their confirmation hearings this week. Eight of them were moved forward by Wednesday’s end, including Reid.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...