Energy & Environment

EPA gives Oklahoma authority over many tribal environmental issues

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is turning its oversight of a number of environmental issues on tribal lands over to the state of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma requested the authority in July using a little-known provision of a 2005 law carved out especially for the state. In a seven-page letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler lists a number of Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act authorities that will now be overseen by Oklahoma.

The move will give the state more oversight over environmental issues for Oklahoma’s 38 federally recognized tribes, something the Cherokee Nation called a “knee-jerk reaction to curtail tribal jurisdiction [that] is not productive.”

Stitt’s request is the first use of the Oklahoma-only provision in a 2005 transportation bill sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) that allows Oklahoma to oversee environmental issues “in the areas of the state that are in Indian country, without any further demonstration of authority by the state.”

“EPA’s letter grants Oklahoma’s request to administer the State’s EPA-approved environmental regulatory programs in certain areas of Indian country. EPA’s letter resolves ambiguity and essentially preserves the regulatory status quo in Oklahoma,” EPA spokesman James Hewitt said in a statement, adding that existing exemptions would still stand and that the agency would implement federal environmental programs.

“Additionally, if any tribe wants to apply for regulatory oversight of these environmental programs, then they can apply through EPA’s Treatment as a State process,” he added.

The Oct. 1 letter was first reported by The Young Turks, a left-wing news outlet, on Monday.

The move raised alarm with those who see the potential for a loss of tribal sovereignty as well as for the state to greenlight polluting projects on tribal lands over objections from Natives.

“It’s disappointing the Cherokee Nation’s request that EPA consult individually with affected Oklahoma tribes was ignored,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement to The Hill.  

“Unfortunately, the governor’s decision to invoke a 2005 federal law ignores the longstanding relationships between state agencies and the Cherokee Nation. All Oklahomans benefit when the Tribes and state work together in the spirit of mutual respect and this knee-jerk reaction to curtail tribal jurisdiction is not productive,” he added.

The EPA’s own summary report, after consulting with tribes, notes that many in Indian Country were opposed to the decision.

“Tribes expressed concern that the state’s request to assume jurisdiction is unprecedented and will substantially impact the tribe’s ability to exercise self-governance in protecting human health and the  environment on reservation lands in Oklahoma,” the agency wrote in a late September report.   

Stitt defended seeking the authority.

“This approval helps to better protect public health and our environment by ensuring certainty and one consistent set of regulations for all citizens of Oklahoma, including those who are also citizens of one of Oklahoma’s federally recognized Tribes,” the governor said in a statement.

“Oklahoma did not seek to expand or increase its regulation over new areas of the state, but rather to continue to regulate those areas where the state has consistently implemented these environmental programs under the steady oversight of the U.S. EPA. Maintaining consistent regulation over the environmental programs in Oklahoma is imperative to allow those who are regulated to know what the rules are and how to comply with them,” he added.

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