EPA gives authority to state on environmental issues over tribal lands
OKLAHOMA CITY – On Oct. 5, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that the Oklahoma government now has regulatory control over environmental issues on nearly all tribal lands in the state.
On July 22, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt requested authority from the EPA soon after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the McGirt v. Oklahoma case that much of the land in eastern Oklahoma remained the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation, according to an Associated Press article.
“Unfortunately, the governor’s decision to invoke a 2005 federal law ignores the longstanding relationships between state agencies and the Cherokee Nation,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “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.”
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler made the approval of the state’s request. It applies to more than two dozen federal environmental programs overseen by several state agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Water Resources Board and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
Stitt made the request under Section 10211(a) of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA) of 2005.
Section 10211(a) of SAFETEA states “…upon request of the State, the Administrator shall approve the State to administer the State program in the areas of the state that in in Indian country, without further demonstration of authority by the State.”
“As Administrator Wheeler’s letter correctly points out, the State of 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,” Stitt said in the AP article.
The underlying law, inserted as a midnight rider in SAFETEA, allows states to “seek environmental oversight in Indian Country,” authored in 2005 by Oklahoma’s Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, a known ally of the oil and gas industry, according to the AP article.
A summary report was sent to Oklahoma tribes on Sept. 29 regarding a consultation process conducted earlier that month. Several tribes questioned the limited consultation, saying that it was not extensive enough.
One specific comment in the summary said, “The EPA cannot satisfy its statutory and policy obligations to the Cherokee Nation by merely engaging in a limited three-week consultation process.”
Hoskin said he is disappointed that the CN’s request to the EPA for individual consultation with affected Oklahoma tribes was ignored.