KBIC sets water plan

Joshua Vissers/Daily Mining Gazette The paperwork for the KBIC TAS application totals well over 1,000 pages.

The comment period ended for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community’s (KBIC) treatment as state (TAS) under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, but not before county and state officials voiced their objections.

Approval would mean that the KBIC Natural Resources Department (NRD) could establish local water quality regulations under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), apply for air quality monitoring grants with a lower match rate, work with other government entities on project development, and receive earlier notice of permit applications and renewals in order to offer more complete comments.

“Being approved for TAS doesn’t mean we already have water quality standards in place, it means we can go forth to develop water quality standards. And those water quality standards will have to be approved by EPA,” said Stephanie Cree, KBIC water resources specialist. “When we develop our water quality standards, they’ll come up for public comment as well.”

Michigan Senator Ed McBroom and commissioners Mike Koskinen and Gale Eilola from the county that contains the KBIC reservation, Baraga, offered official opposition to the TAS application.

Baraga commissioners’ first point was that, within the KBIC reservation, tribal members own less than one-third of the property, the rest is owned by non-Indian individuals and entities with no voice in tribal government. McBroom echoed the sentiment in Senate Resolution 49. They say giving the KBIC regulatory power on the reservation would “subject them (non-Indians) to the control of a sovereign nation in which they have no representation and no political remedy…”

But the NRD says they are not segregating resource management. The KBIC is sovereign under federal treaty. Currently, the EPA, not the state of Michigan, holds jurisdiction over the waters on the reservation. Any political action would have to be taken to the federal level, not to the state. The EPA would maintain approval oversight of NRD water and air standards.

“It sounds like we’re separate, non-Indian and Indian, and we’re not,” Cree said. “We’re a community. We’re not just going after non-Indians that are living on the reservation and only protecting the Indians, we’re looking at it as a whole… We’re protecting the community, non-Indian and Indian together.”

Any member of the public would also have a chance to comment on the draft water quality standards the NRD submits to the EPA as well.

“We’ll have to address every single comment that the public has,” Cree said.

TAS opponents are also concerned about the potential economic impacts caused by what they say is an additional, unnecessary layer of government bureaucracy that increases the regulatory burden on businesses, property owners, and the state. They worry that such a “hodgepodge of regulatory control” will scare away potential investors from Baraga County, and even the state as a whole.

The NRD, however, says their rules will not be too radically different from those elsewhere in the country.

“They’re (EPA) not going to allow us to put forth draft water quality standards to the public that are not within reason,” Cree said.

Jane Kahkonen, NRD air quality specialist, points out that the KBIC has similar interest in economic opportunity and local development. While 53 other tribes have been approved for TAS under the Clean Air Act, the KBIC would be the first in Michigan. She said the KBIC is ready to work collaboratively with the State of Michigan on the economy, environment and public health.

The EPA developed the TAS program and promotes it because they recognize local standards are more relevant to a community than regional standards.

“Our needs and concerns are different from say, the city of Detroit. We have different conditions, the citizens are using the environment a little bit differently,” NRD Director Evelyn Ravindran said.

For instance, Cree said that after a fish consumption survey they found the local community eats far more fish than the average person in the region, so developing environmental standards reflecting that can help keep the entire community more healthy.

Baraga County commissioners’ final concern was for the ability of the KBIC to administer and enforce their regulations “in a competent, fair and even-handed fashion,” citing the relatively brief time the NRD has existed –it was formed in the 1990s — and its slow growth since then.

Ravindran said that growing the NRD programs through TAS would increase local expertise and capacity for public programs.

“We would have people specific to air and water that are right on the reservation, right here in our local community,” Ravindran said. “The whole community would benefit from this. We work with tribal and non-tribal.”

Ravindran said the NRD has offered their expertise and advice to many local environmental groups and individuals, and they encourage local community members to reach out with questions by phone, email, or stopping into their office on Pequaming Road. The NRD website is nrd.kbic-nsn.gov, and they can be reached by phone at (906) 524-5757.

“We are in the office every single day. If they have questions, feel free to contact us. That’s our jobs,” Cree said.