Tribes slam EPA move to give Oklahoma control of environmental rules

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Oklahoma tribal nations slammed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent granting of authority to the state over environmental issues on vast tracts of land recognized by the Supreme Court as “Indian country.”

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Oct. 1 approved Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt’s request to give the state, not tribal nations, such authority even on lands inside historical tribal reservation boundaries. In a letter to Stitt, he said a 2005 federal law allows states to seek oversight of tribal lands from the agency.

The Supreme Court ruled in July that about half of Oklahoma was Native American reservation land. The oil industry had raised concerns here about new regulatory and tax implications from the decision.

“Multiple requests to the EPA for additional time to consider this important issue were denied without adequate explanation,” Brad Mallett, senior executive officer of the Choctaw Nation’s legal division, told Reuters in a statement. He said the EPA decision “disrespects tribal sovereignty.”

Casey Camp-Horinek, environmental ambassador of the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma, also said EPA attempts to consult with the tribe on the issue were insufficient, and that the tribe was considering filing a lawsuit.

EPA spokesman James Hewitt responded by email on Tuesday that “if any tribe wants to apply for regulatory oversight of these environmental programs, then they can apply through EPA’s Treatment as a State process.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling stemmed from a rape case, in which it overturned a tribe member’s conviction because his lawyers proved the crime took place outside state jurisdiction.

Stitt, an ally of the state’s oil and gas industry, wrote to the EPA days afterward to request authority over environmental programs.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Richard Chang