AUGUSTA — Paper industry groups urged Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection on Thursday to slow down and potentially ratchet back a proposal to tighten pollution standards on waterways used by tribal members for sustenance fishing.

Representatives for the Penobscot Nation and a statewide environmental group, meanwhile, called on regulators to move forward with implementing a law that would give Maine some of the most protective water quality standards in the nation.

“Sustenance practices of the Maine tribes are important to the cultural survival and the health of tribal members,” Dan Kusnierz, water resources program manager for the Penobscot Nation, said at a BEP hearing. “But this rule provides cleaner water not only for tribes but also all people that use water segments designated for sustenance fishing.”

After a multi-year legal battle over water quality standards, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection negotiated a compromise this year with tribal leaders that is viewed as a potential work-around solution to eventually settle those court cases. The proposal designates several dozen rivers, streams or other water bodies as “sustenance fishing” areas and then sets water quality criteria adequate to protect the health of tribal members who eat up to 200 grams – or roughly 7 ounces – of fish each day from those waterways. Current standards are based on consumption of roughly 32 grams, or 1 ounce a day.

The Legislature gave near-unanimous support to the resulting bill, which directs the DEP and the board to implement the new standards by March 1. The bill faced no major opposition during the legislative process.

But during Thursday’s public hearing, representatives of the pulp and paper industry cautioned against imposing water quality standards that could put the brakes on an economic sector experiencing a recent resurgence after years of mills shuttering in Maine. Industry speakers asked the board to slow down the rulemaking process and create a stakeholder group to explore, among other things, whether the state should develop more site-specific water quality standards based on factors in each area.

“I think we need to determine whether we can move that March 1 date back, because that’s an arbitrary date” set by the Legislature, said Bill Taylor, an attorney representing the Maine Forest Products Council. “We need to start the stakeholder group to really get ahead of this and in a positive way, and we need more time to get you more information.”

Industry representatives questioned whether it was appropriate for the DEP to be using generic standards for different waterways around the state rather than tailor those standards “to better reflect the characteristics of the people and the waters of the state.” That could hypothetically allow lower pollution standards than those envisioned in the DEP proposal, which uses federal health standards to protect tribal members who exercise their sustenance fishing rights and consume substantially more fish than the average Mainer.

Millinocket-area representatives, meanwhile, oppose the new rules out of concern that the stricter water quality standards could impede economic development in a region struggling to recover from paper mill closures. Working with the nonprofit group Our Katahdin, Millinocket officials have been cleaning up the former Great Northern Paper mill site and attempting to resolve a tax lien on the property as they court aquaculture, biodiesel and other industries to potentially occupy the site.

Millinocket Town Councilor Michael Madore saw the current proposal as the first part of a “slippery slope” in which water quality standards are continually tightened to the point that his community and others can no longer redevelop sites.

“This is going to impact what we can and cannot do on this site,” Madore said of the 1,400-acre former mill property. “In cases like ours, it is a premature restriction that we can’t afford. We don’t want to go ahead and take keep taking two steps forward and three steps back every time we turn around. This (rulemaking) is one of those three steps back, in my opinion.”

Maine’s state and tribal governments have a long and troubled history when it comes to fishing rights, water quality and jurisdictional boundaries, despite the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which was supposed to have resolved these and other issues.

When she was Maine’s attorney general, now-Gov. Janet Mills sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of the Maine DEP to block more stringent federal water quality standards aimed at protecting the health of tribal sustenance fishermen. The state and the Penobscot Nation also fought in the courts over whether the tribe’s reservation boundaries included the waters of the Penobscot River in a case with potential implications for upstream towns and businesses that discharge waste into the river.

The sustenance fishing rules discussed Thursday by the BEP were part of a package of bills and executive actions by the Mills administration aimed at improving state and tribal relations.

Members of the four Indian tribes in Maine – the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs – are already guaranteed the right to take any marine organism other than lobster “for sustenance use.”

But those sustenance fishing rights exist only on paper for many tribal members. That’s because contamination from mercury and other toxins means it is unsafe to regularly consume wild fish from many tribal areas. In the Penobscot River, for instance, the state advises anglers to limit themselves to one or two fish per month and for pregnant or nursing women to avoid eating Penobscot fish altogether.

Nick Bennett, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said that over time, the more stringent standards will make water quality in the Penobsot and other waterways cleaner for all users, not just tribal members.

“These changes are a long time coming,” Bennett said Thursday while testifying in support of the more protective standards. “This is something that Maine tribes have asked for ever since the land claims settlement act in 1980 was enacted. There has been a lot of controversy about it, and there have been a lot of court cases. I think this is a resolution that we can all feel pretty happy about given all of the acrimony that has gone on.”

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