Maine tribes lose paper case appeal
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JUNE 21, 2001

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday refused to resolve a dispute involving two Maine tribes and three private paper companies accused of polluting Indian Country rivers.

Ruling that the federal courts have no say in the matter, the three-judge panel dismissed the tribes' attempt to prevent the companies from seizing tribal documents. Maine's courts have already decided the issue, so the question of whether the federal system has jurisdiction is meaningless, said the judges.

"Regardless whether the district court had jurisdiction or whether a federal cause of action is presented, the intervening decision of the Maine Supreme Court . . . makes the present federal suit superfluous," they said.

Yesterday's ruling lets stand a Maine Supreme Court decision which held the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe accountable to the state's freedom of information act. In May, the court said the act applies when the tribes function as municipal governments, but not on matters of self-government.

The decision effectively allows Great Northern Paper Inc., Georgia Pacific Corp. and Champion International Corp to obtain communications the tribes made with the federal government over water quality. Regulating water is a municipal issue, so the public has a right to see the documents, said the court.

The tribes are protesting the ruling. As sovereign governments, they want to be exempted from freedom of information requests, although their 1980 land claims settlement grants the state civil and criminal jurisdiction over most tribal activities.

While the tribes appeal, they await a decision from the Environmental Protection Agency which could further complicate the dispute. In January, the EPA said the state could control water quality everywhere except Indian Country.

As a result, the EPA may allow the tribes to regulate water quality of rivers flowing into their reservations -- a power the paper companies fear. A decision is pending.

A number of Western and Midwestern states, along with private industry, have frequently challenged tribal control over non-Indians. Tribes often enact tougher environmental standards for various reasons, a power the United States Supreme Court in April let stand.

The Maine tribes want to protect their fishing and cultural lifestyle. They also believe the state hasn't been harsh enough on the paper companies, who contribute to the state economy.

"Mercury, dioxin, and other pollutants have entered our water, our air, our fish, our wildlife, our plants and, thus, our bodies," said Penobscot Nation Governor Barry Dana at an environmental summit in January.

The National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization, is supporting the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

Get the Decision:
PENOBSCOT NATION v. GEORGIA-PACIFIC CORP., No 00-2265 (1st Cir. June 20, 2001)

Related Decision:

Relevant Links:
The Penobscot Nation -
Passamaquoddy Tribe, Pleasant Point Reservation -
Passamaquoddy Tribe, Indian Township -
Great Northern Paper -
Georgia Pacific Corp. -
Champion International Corp -
American Indian Environmental Office, EPA -

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