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Minnesota tribe is first to oversee air quality
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Regional air permit holders within 50 miles of the Fond du Lac Reservation will have their air permit applications reviewed by tribal officials. The tribe's concerns will carry the same weight with regulators as those of a state. The Sappi paper plant in Cloquet falls within that range. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
A northern Minnesota Ojibwe band is expected to be first in the upper Midwest to take over air quality responsibilities from the federal EPA. For Fond du Lac Band tribal officials, it's a step to keep the air clean on their reservation. It's also a way the band can demonstrate its rights as a sovereign nation.

Fond Du Lac Reservation, Minn. — To anyone's nose, the air on the Fond du Lac Reservation is pretty clean. The 100,000-acre reservation near Duluth is rural and forested. About half is considered water or wetlands. Band officials want to keep the land and air pristine, and soon they'll have new tools to do that.

The band has applied for new air quality responsibilities, under the Environmental Protection Agency's Tribal Air program. If approved, Fond du Lac officials will be given notice of any air permit applications within 50 miles of their northern Minnesota reservation.

The band won't have veto authority over air permits. But it will be allowed to comment on permits in cities including Cloquet, Grand Rapids, Duluth, and Superior. Tribal concerns will carry the same weight with regulators as those of a state.

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Image Ferdinand Martineau

Ferdinand Martineau, the band's director of natural resources, says it also opens up new responsibilities to limit air pollution throughout the region.

"It gives us a seat on a regional committee, a committee that overlooks or oversees the issues of smog and things like that over the upper Midwest," Martineau says. "It gives us a seat there as a state."

And, the band is in line for federal money for an air monitoring program, with the band providing a small match.

As important as its role in air management will be, Martineau says it's equally important to be recognized as a sovereign nation.

"What the band is looking for, is it's called treatment as a state," says Martineau. "And what that will do for the band, is it will recognize that the band's sovereign authority exists, just like the state of Minnesota's sovereign authority exists."

About 15 years ago, the federal government actually took a more assertive stand, to say on tribal land, states don't have the authority to run the federal programs.
- Lisa Thorvig, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Native American sovereign rights over water and air quality weren't even recognized until relatively recently. On the Fond du Lac Reservation, there's a single industry that requires an air permit, a natural gas compression facility. But the state of Minnesota used to write that permit, even though the state has no standing on the reservation.

That's changed, according to Lisa Thorvig of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The gas facility is under federal permit now.

"In the past, the state did assume we had regulatory authority, even on tribal land," Thorvig says. "And about 15 years ago, the federal government actually took a more assertive stand, to say on tribal land, states don't have the authority to run the federal programs."

Benjamin Giwojna oversees tribal programs for the EPA District 5 in Chicago, and says Congress stepped in to clear up confusion over who has authority on tribal lands.

"The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 got the agency looking at tribes, and taking into consideration tribal sovereignty to implement and manage their own air programs," Giwojna says.

About half of Minnesota's Native American tribes have adopted at least some of their on-reservation clean water regulation. But it's been a longer road turning over air oversight to the tribes. Fond du Lac will be first among 35 tribes in the upper Midwest.

In the future, the band could get authority to adopt and enforce air regulations. Tribal officials have expressed interest in controlling backyard burn barrels. With an approved Tribal Implementation Plan, or TIP, the band could place new limits on outdoor burning.

"The Fond du Lac Band could create a TIP that would include emissions limits, and say, a registration permitting program that would cover burn barrels and backyard burning, things of that nature," Giwojna says. "Those kinds of programs would certainly be eligible to be included in a Tribal Implementation Plan."

The band could apply to write air emission permits for any industry that requires air regulation on the reservation.

The Fond du Lac Band is expected to begin its first air quality program this fall.

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