The Environmental Protection Agency has granted a petition by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes to be treated in a manner similar to states under the Clean Air Act.
Under the “treated as state” or TAS ruling, the tribes will have authority to monitor the air and submit opinions about permits to emit chemicals into the atmosphere on the Wind River Indian Reservation and within 50 miles of the reservation boundaries, an area that includes Jonah Field, an oil and gas field in the Green River Basin. The tribes would also be eligible for federal grants to pay for monitoring efforts.
In a finding that may have more far reaching implications for law enforcement and other jurisdictions, the federal ruling examines the boundaries of the reservation and concludes that the city of Riverton is within the boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation. This determination has been in dispute for years.
“The Reservation boundary finding which includes the City of Riverton will have a profoundly positive effect on developing a cooperative spirit between the Tribes, City of Riverton, Fremont County and the State of Wyoming,” said Councilman Al Addison in a statement.
The tribe wrote a letter to the mayor of Riverton expressing hope that the tribes and the city could cooperate in ways that would help both sides benefit from new, shared jurisdictions. Ron Warpness, the mayor, said he had not seen the letter on Monday afternoon. However, he was not receptive to the idea that Riverton is part of the reservation.
“There have been several Supreme Court decisions that maintained that this is not Indian Country,” Warpness said.
The EPA’s decision acknowledges that the Wind River tribes meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act, which grants them the status of an “affected state” when CAA permits are proposed within 50 miles of its boundaries. They will be allowed to submit recommendations about any proposed CAA permit in that area. If the agency granting the permit does not follow the recommendations of the tribes, the agency will have to respond in writing about why the recommendations were disregarded.
The Wind River Environmental Quality Commission, a relatively new body on the reservation, has cooperated with the Department of Energy, among other agencies, and is likely to have boosted the tribes’ case for competency to carry out an environmental monitoring campaign.
“This grant provides resources for developing air monitoring expertise and a seat at the table to comment on potential air polluting sources on and around the Reservation,” said Northern Arapaho councilman Dean Goggles in the statement. “Who can argue with that? We have a right to protect the resources of the Tribes and that includes the air that we breathe.”
“This can only be positive for all of our citizens,” said Northern Arapaho councilman Willard Gould.
By acknowledging that the tribes meet the requirements to be treated as a state under the CAA, the EPA recognizes the governing bodies of the tribe as competent governments with the capacity to exercise the monitoring authority granted by the federal law.
At this writing, representatives of the Denver EPA are meeting with representatives of the state attorney general’s office and the governor’s office to explain the ruling and hear their reactions.
In August, Gov. Matt Mead wrote to the EPA in Washington objecting to the Denver EPA office’s suggestion that it might find in favor of the TAS application.
“The Tribes’ application, if granted, has implications for criminal law, civil law, water law and taxation,” Mead wrote. “It also takes away the voice of citizens in Kinnear, Riverton, and Pavillion. … Having just heard of EPA’s proposed action, I want you to know right away that I think the proposal is extremely problematic and I have major concerns about it.”
Mead renewed his opposition to the EPA decision as soon as he learned of Monday’s decision.
“It is outrageous to me that a regulatory agency has proposed changing jurisdictional boundaries established by history and the Courts,” Mead wrote in an email. “I have asked the Attorney General to challenge this decision and defend the existing boundaries of the reservation.”
Mead went on to argue that the new decision remains open to public debate. ”The state received the EPA’s unpublished decision granting the tribes ‘Treatment As State’ status at a 6 p.m. meeting on December 9, 2013,” Mead wrote. “The changes put forward by the EPA would not go into effect until this decision is published in the Federal Register and a 60-day public comment period has passed.”
Ronald K. Oldman, co-chairman of the business council, noted that the EPA created a 10,000-page administrative record of the tribes’ application process. “The administrative record is a thorough and complete review of the history of the reservation and the intent of Congress over many years. The conclusions are very difficult to argue with,” said Oldman.
The next few weeks and months promise occasions for conflict as well as opportunities for cooperation. But in statements and conversations after the decision was announced on Monday, the tribes emphasized the potential for closer ties with non-Native communities on and off the reservation.
The tribe wants to work with all stakeholders, said Mark Howell, a Northern Arapaho spokesman based in Washington, D.C. “The tribe hopes to cooperate with all levels of government — state, federal, county and local — to work through an actual implementation of the EPA’s decision and come to an agreed-upon decision that everybody can live with.”
For a long time, tribal leaders who have not always felt they won the battles in Washington and Cheyenne, the news from the EPA was greeted with relief and elation.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Sara Robinson, the Eastern Shoshone tribe’s liaison to the governor’s office. “It’s just about time. You cannot get a break in any direction and then this happens. It makes you realize that what we are trying to do as tribes and nations is actually worthwhile. You can achieve something.”
Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @feemsternews.
WyoFile is a nonprofit news service focused on Wyoming people, places and policy. Reprinted with permission.