Passamaquoddy tribe says Perry vote on water ordinance will jeopardize alternative water supply for reservation

Posted Aug. 14, 2014, at 4:29 p.m.

PERRY, Maine — Perry residents will vote on a proposed ordinance next week that would regulate the development of water systems, but the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point says the measure would add unnecessary burdens and costs to their plans to develop an alternative public water supply for the region.

Perry residents will vote on the proposed water ordinance and a second building-related ordinance at the town’s municipal building on Monday. The ordinances were drafted by a committee following tribal tests on exploratory wells nearly a year ago.

Those tests prompted complaints from some residents that water levels in their wells dropped and their water was tainted. In response, town officials issued a stop work order. Then residents voted 43-0 at a special town meeting in November to impose a 180-day moratorium on the water exploration activities in order to allow the town time to develop an appropriate regulatory ordinance. The Board of Selectmen voted in April to extend the moratorium as the committee drafting the ordinance needed more time.

The proposed water ordinance has since been approved by the Planning Board, and the selectmen subsequently voted 3-0 to put it before residents in a special vote. Balloting will be at the town’s municipal building 1-7 p.m. on Monday.

The tribe, dissatisfied with the quality of water supplied by the Passamaquoddy Water District, a public utility that serves the reservation and the city of Eastport, has developed several exploratory wells in the town.

The tribe has a obtained a state permit for two wells that authorizes it to draw up to a combined 250 gallons per minute, according to Normand Laberge, the tribe’s staff engineer. That volume would be more than adequate to supply the water district, according to Laberge, because it produces an average of about 150 gallons per minute.

Laberge also explained that the water district currently pumps about 350 gallons per minute from its impoundment, but only about 50 to 55 percent of the time. In addition, only 40 to 45 percent of what is pumped is drinkable because a lot of the water is lost in the process of treating it for contaminants, he said.

The town’s ordinance would jeopardize the tribe’s water project because of the potential added cost and regulatory hurdles, according to Laberge. “That’s my view,” he said Thursday.

Karen Raye, chair of the Board of Selectmen, did not return a phone call Thursday seeking comment about the proposed ordinance.

The water district’s board of trustees and the tribal council have agreed to hold discussions on the use of the tribal wells, according to Laberge. Conceivably, the water district could buy the land containing the wells, the water, or manage the resources, he said, adding “Those issues have not been resolved.”

The water district would be grandfathered under the proposed ordinance, but it does not refer to other rights in the utility’s charter, observed Laberge. The proposed ordinance is “somewhat silent” on what the utility could do if it gained control or possession of the wells, he said, which could lead to “a great deal of legal back and forth.”

Since the tribe already has the required state permit, having to obtain a permit from the town would be a “parallel” regulatory process, Laberge said.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which, together with the Indian Health Service, has provided the tribe with grants to fund development of the wells so far, is awaiting the results of the negotiations, as well as the town’s vote on the ordinance, before making a decision to fund the next portion of the project, which is the design phase, Laberge said.

Utilizing the tribe’s wells as a source for public water would potentially benefit residents of Perry, Laberge noted. Tests of some monitoring wells a year ago showed water in the area was contaminated with such bacteria as E. coli and coliform. If the tribe’s wells are tapped for the water district, some residents would have the opportunity to hook onto the system.

The proposed ordinance applies to any facility that can extract more than 5,000 gallons of water per day. Among other things, it prohibits the awarding of a permit if plans to extract water would have an adverse effect on groundwater flow patterns related to the aquifer, recharge or other groundwater sources, or create a health risk or adversely impact drinking water.

The proposed ordinance also allows town officials to engage consultants to review a permit application, and the cost would be borne by the applicant.

In addition, the proposed ordinance would require the issuance of an operating permit from the town’s code enforcement officer.

The proposed ordinances are available on the town’s website.

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