A legislative committee on Thursday split three ways on a bill that seeks to give the Passamaquoddy tribe more power to pursue options for drinking water at Pleasant Point.

For years, the Passamaquoddy have had problems with the color and smell of their water. More concerning, following quarterly tests, the Passamaquoddy Water District occasionally sends out notices about high levels of a chemical that has been linked to cancer.

To find a solution, the tribe put forward LD 906, which would make the Passamaquoddy Water District that serves Pleasant Point and Eastport tax exempt, allow the tribe to put two parcels of land in a federal trust and allow the tribe to regulate its own water in consultation with the federal government.

Although all Democrats on the Judiciary Committee supported the bill, two of them split away from full support after hearing from Gov. Janet Mills’ attorney, who said the administration has concerns about parts of the bill. 

Jerry Reid, an attorney for the governor, said he would recommend that Mills veto the bill if it contains provisions that give the tribe exclusive authority to oversee the water and if it splits the district between the tribal reservation and the city of Eastport.

“It makes no sense and it serves nobody’s interests to have that integrated operational system answering to two different regulators,” Reid said.

Further, Reid said a new carbon filtration system that is set to be installed this summer will likely solve most of the water problems.

“I would caution the committee against making any controversial or difficult decisions in this area when we’re on the verge of making a change to the infrastructure of the water district that could resolve the problem entirely,” Reid said.

The water district, which serves about 1,400 people in Eastport and Pleasant Point, last sent out a notice about high levels of trihalomethanes, which are linked to cancer, in October 2019. The notice lists as possible health effects “some people who drink water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the (maximum contaminant level) over many years could experience liver, kidney and central nervous system problems and an increased risk of cancer.”

Passamaquoddy Rep. Rena Newell said for 40 years the tribe has endured substandard water. Moving forward, the tribe would like to have the option to tap into a new water source on two parcels of nearby land to address the problem.

“This is an issue of a human right,” she said. “For the members of my tribe at Pleasant Point to have access to clean drinking water as any other Maine citizen in this state. This is an assertion of the tribe’s inherent right to exercise self-determination.”

Yet the Republicans who opposed the bill said they believe it is an unfair power grab by the tribes to take away the ability of the town of Perry to vote on vital local decisions. The tax-exempt status would mean the loss of $43,000 in taxes paid to Eastport each year and $23,000 paid to Perry. In addition, the bill overrides the town of Perry’s ability to have any say in the process to put two parcels that the Passamaquoddy own into a federal trust.

“I think every other town in our state should be terrified at the precedent we are setting here,” said Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Dixfield). “We should all be concerned that if someone decides to label them as discriminatory that then we as legislators could possibly come in through fiat and decide that their land is better suited in someone else’s hands.”

Rep. Laurel Libby (R-Auburn) said the tribe could have asked for permission from the town of Perry to drill new wells to access clean water.

“In my opinion, this bill is an end run around the town of Perry,” she said. “We should leave this issue in the hands of the municipality.”

But the Democrats who supported the bill said it’s long past time for the issue of substandard drinking water to be resolved.

“It’s an embarrassment for me this issue hasn’t been resolved,” said Rep. Christopher Babbidge (D-Kennebunk). “We’ve had a generation of folks that have grown up with this water. This is a solution to move forward. If the ramifications of this cause a problem, I don’t see that being a greater problem than the status quo and we can address that at a later time.”

The bill will now move forward to the full House and Senate for consideration in the coming weeks.