Last modified March 17, 2015, at 12:26 p.m.
ORONO, Maine — Local resident John Banks, who is also a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, told the town’s Community Development Committee on Monday that his tribe has been promised fishing privileges over and over by different governments, including the Colonial government of Massachusetts before Maine was even a state.
He said in 1775, Massachusetts leaders “asked my tribe to join the calling” during the American Revolution and that “our tribal chief at that time was named Orono.” In exchange for fighting the British the Penobscots were promised “our lands and our fishing privileges within our waters would be protected in perpetuation,” Banks said.
“It’s really hard for me, in 2015, to be fighting the same battle,” he said. “This is all about our fishing rights, which are located above the town of Orono.”
The Penobscot Nation in 2012 sued the state in federal court over the state’s interpretation of whether the tribe’s jurisdictional authority applies to parts of the river that abut tribal islands in the river. Orono is one of 18 municipalities and other entities with discharge permits into the river who have an interest in its water quality standards and are listed as intervenors in the suit.
Before Banks spoke, about a dozen others asked the town to withdraw from the lawsuit as a sign of support for the Penobscot Nation. After hearing from residents, Orono’s Community Development Committee voted unanimously to recommend to the full town council that Orono withdraw from the lawsuit.
Many of the 35 people at Monday’s meeting applauded their decision.
After reviewing all the materials, Councilor Mark Haggerty said: “The conclusion I came to is that we should not be interveners. I’m going to hope things work out and we’re not going to see additional cost with our [future] waste water discharges.”
The 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act provided the Penobscots with subsistence hunting and fishing rights for all sections of the Penobscot River from the Milford Dam to Millinocket. The tribe’s lawsuit against the state was filed in 2012 after then-Attorney General William Schneider issued an opinion that the Penobscots’ territory was limited to islands in the river and does not extend to the river itself.
While the Penobscot Nation lawsuit works it’s way through the system, on Feb. 2 the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a decision, which some have described as “unprecedented,” that reaffirmed the state’s authority to establish water quality standards for “waters in Indian lands” and also required that Maine must adopt tighter water standards along the Penobscot River to better protect the sustenance fishing rights of the Penobscot Nation.
The state has 90 days from Feb. 2 decision to address the EPA’s position on increasing standards to protect human health along the Penobscot River, stretching about 70 miles from the Milford Dam up to Millinocket. If the state does not respond within that time, EPA officials said the federal agency “will propose and promulgate appropriate human health criteria for waters in Indian lands in Maine.”
BDN writers Judy Harrison, Chris Cousins and Bill Trotter contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story said Banks was part of the group that asked the town to withdraw from the lawsuit. Banks made no such statement.