A view of the Penobscot River can be seen in this Dec. 9, 2016, file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

AUGUSTA, Maine — The administration of Gov. Janet Mills is backing a solution to a long-standing legal conflict between Maine’s federally recognized tribes and the state and U.S. governments over sustenance fishing rights that would upgrade water quality standards around tribal lands.

The Democratic governor has looked to reset tenuous relations with Maine’s four tribes since taking office in January. Her 2018 primary campaign for governor was highlighted by a letter from progressives and tribes flagging what they called her “attacks” on tribal rights as attorney general, though her administration’s move was applauded at a public hearing Wednesday.

As attorney general, Mills’ office represented the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage in a 2014 lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency after the federal agency under former President Barack Obama found that water quality standards pertaining to tribal lands were too weak.

The lawsuit is still in federal court, but Maine has argued that it has the authority to regulate that water under the Maine Indian Settlement Act of 1980. Tribes have disagreed, and many members opposed Mills’ nomination of Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Jerry Reid at a January hearing where he promised to help negotiate a solution after running point on the lawsuit as a deputy attorney general to Mills.

Water quality standards around tribal lands now allow for the safe consumption of 8 ounces of local fish per week. The administration’s new proposal — sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and brokered with tribal officials — would upgrade standards to allow consumption of 7 ounces daily in a nod to cultural sustenance fishing.

Reid told the Legislature’s environment panel on Wednesday that those standards would likely be approved by the EPA and end the lawsuit. John Banks, director of the Penobscot Nation’s natural resources department, said the process has “improved tribal-state relations.”

“I feel that we’ve taken a lot of the politics out of it, and we’ve really focused on the health and safety of not just our people, but all people,” said Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s ambassador to federal, state and local governments. “So, I guess a lot of the discontent may have been uncomfortable but may have been useful, and we’re quite happy with this bill.”

The bill would set new quality standards in tribal waters by 2020. The Legislature is considering another bill that would reclassify quality standards of several water bodies suggested by the Penobscot Nation and conservation groups. They include parts of the Penobscot River around Millinocket and Old Town and the Androscoggin River between Lisbon and Merrymeeting Bay.

Mills has aimed to improve tribal-state relations, including the Friday nomination of six candidates for the 13-person Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and the January hiring of former Penobscot Nation Police Chief Donna Loring as a liaison between the state and tribes. The commission has not been full since 2013.

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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...