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State ready to fight reservation border decision by EPA

Dec 11, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

State lawmakers say they plan to take a "strong, proactive position" against a recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency impacting the boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The EPA last week approved an application from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes requesting Treatment as a State through the Clean Air Act. In the approving document, the EPA said a 1905 Congressional Act opening tribal lands -- including the city of Riverton -- to homesteading did not diminish the reservation boundary north of the Wind River.

'Fight to the end'

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said the state is prepared to challenge the decision.

"This is the kind of issue the state will fight to the end," he said. "It may eventually go to the Supreme Court. ... Everything north of the (Wind River) is not Indian Country. There's all kinds of support to that."

Bebout is in meetings this week with the Joint Appropriation Committee, which he co-chairs. He said the group is exploring legislative opportunities to reverse the EPA's ruling.

"Just to let everyone know how serious we are, we may set aside a litigation budget for the Attorney General to take this one," he said, adding that any decisions are in the preliminary phases at this point.

The changes put forward by the EPA would not go into effect until this decision is published in the Federal Register and a 60-day public comment period has passed. Bebout wasn't sure whether the time for comments would affect the outcome of the decision.

"Once they do the 60 days and comments are heard, they can say, 'Thank you for the comments, and now it's effective,'" he said. "It's all up in the air. ... What we'd try to do is stay any decision they make until it's decided by the courts."

The EPA asserts that it has the authority to determine the boundaries of the reservation as part of the CAA TAS request.

"Certain commenters appear to assert that EPA lacks authority to determine the reservation's boundaries and that questions regarding the boundary are reserved solely to courts," the EPA decision document. "EPA disagrees."

More bureaucracy

Bebout wondered by the tribes would want TAS through the CAA anyway.

"I can understand the tribes wanting to have some input in terms of air quality," he said. "But I'm not sure they have the resources or expertise to do this. And even if they did, why create another layer of bureaucracy?"

Bebout said the boundary issue could lead to other jurisdictional questions regarding law enforcement, for example.

"You could have Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement coming to Riverton to try to do the city of Riverton's job, making arrests," he said. "That's not a good thing."

The EPA's decision would approve a 50-mile buffer zone around the reservation in which the tribes would be able to express concerns and give comments about projects affective air quality. EPA officials said the tribes would not have regulatory authority in the 50-mile area, however.

'Who can argue'?

Tribal councilman Dean Goggles said the EPA decision provides resources for developing air monitoring expertise within the tribes and allows tribal leaders to have a "seat at the table" to comment on potential air polluting sources on and around the reservation.

"Who can argue with that?" Goggles said in a press release. "We have a right to protect the resources of the tribes, and that includes the air that we breathe."