AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers are on track to give a Maine tribe sweeping control over their water supply after the Democratic-led Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill viewed with skepticism by Gov. Janet Mills.
The effort from the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik comes in response to long-standing concerns about the public water at the Pleasant Point reservation. While it now tests as safe, it comes from a shallow lake and is discolored. Over the years, it has often had elevated levels of chemicals linked to cancer that are byproducts of chlorine needed to treat the water.
The tribe owns two plots of land in the neighboring town of Perry on which it wants to explore a well, but the town passed an ordinance in 2014 effectively blocking the project. A bill from tribal Rep. Rena Newell would bypass the town by adding the land to the tribe’s territory under a federal trust process and enshrining a federal partnership to manage the tribe’s water.
Newell’s measure is one of several bills aiming to reshape state-tribal relations and the first to go to the floors of the Legislature in 2022. All of them can be read as an attempt from tribes to overhaul the terms of a 1980 land-claims settlement that gave Maine tribes money in exchange for being regulated like cities and towns. Other U.S. tribes have more power.
The Senate passed the measure in a 21-11 vote on Wednesday, following a 103-35 tally in the House on Tuesday. Proponents said the state and town of Perry should not be able to block the tribe from seeking a new water source that meets their needs.
“The state of Maine must set aside her painful paternalism towards the tribes and get out of the way,” said Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop.
Mills, a Democrat, has opposed key elements of a more sweeping tribal sovereignty overhaul in favor of a limited compromise that would hand a new mobile sports betting to the tribes. Her administration has criticized the measure for effectively subjecting the Passamaquoddy Water District, which also serves the city of Eastport, to two sets of regulators.
Opponents of the measure, including most legislative Republicans, have criticized it for bypassing Perry and noted that a filtration system delayed by pandemic supply chain issues is set to come online this summer and could improve conditions.
“Before we transfer land from the town of Perry to the reservation, I feel we should press the pause button,” said Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais.