VLS Clinic Helps Tribal Group Win Victory in Natural Gas Dispute
April 26, 2010
SOUTH ROYALTON, VT -- With the aid of Vermont Law School's Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic (ENRLC), a group of Passamaquoddy Tribe members in Maine has won a major victory in its efforts to prevent construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal on its land.
The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) on Friday cancelled the tribe's land-lease contract with an Oklahoma-based company, Quoddy Bay LNG in the wake of the company's failure to comply with the 2005 lease and the tribe's decision in June 2009 to terminate the lease. The BIA notified the tribe and the ENRLC on Monday of its decision.
Nationwide, a growing number of Native American tribes are looking into oil, natural gas and coal production as way to boost tribal economies, but energy development can raise significant environmental concerns.
Quoddy Bay LNG has 30 days to vacate the premises or file an appeal with the BIA, which cited the company's failure to respond to an earlier notice of lease violation. The cost of building the facility was expected to be about $500 million.
"Today's victory is on behalf of our descendants because it is what our ancestors expect from us," said Vera Francis, an organizer with Nulankeyutmonen Nkitahkomikon (We Take Care of Our Land), a Passamaquoddy grassroots group that opposes the project. "To value and defend that which has sustained us—Passamaquoddy Bay—is what defines and shapes our future."
Associate Professor David Mears and Assistant Professor Teresa Clemmer, the ENRLC's director and assistant director, respectively, said the BIA's decision to cancel the lease was a testament to the perseverance of far-sighted tribal members and the clinic's faculty and student clinicians.
"It's a great result and a testament to their determination and willingness to hang in there for the long haul," Clemmer said.
Some members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe living on the Pleasant Point Reservation in northeastern Maine have battled the proposed natural gas terminal on tribal land at Split Rock from the project's onset in 2004. They said the project threatens the ecological health of Passamaquoddy Bay and would destroy an area important to the tribe's cultural, spiritual and economic lives.
Nulankeyutmonen Nkitahkomikon hired the ENRLC, which filed suit in 2005 in U.S. District Court in Bangor, Maine. The tribe's leaders at the time signed a 50-year lease with the Oklahoma company over the opposition of some tribal members.
The suit contended that the BIA approved a lease authorizing the construction of the terminal without complying with the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal environmental and historic protection laws. Since then, the ENRLC has been attempting to overcome a series of procedural arguments raised by the U.S. Department of Justice in order to reach the merits of the case.
The ENRLC prevailed in a companion lawsuit involving its Freedom of Information Act requests for records from the BIA. A federal court judge in Maine ruled that the BIA violated FOIA by failing to promptly release the requested documents.
In 2008, Quoddy Bay LNG, citing the lack of final approval from the BIA, withdrew its applications for state and federal permits for the project and later suspended the quarterly payments it was required under the lease to make to the tribe.
"The health of the bay's unique ecosystems depends upon sound decision-making," Francis said. "Quite unlike many other cultures, ours is a history enlivened by a bay rich in marine life, tides and beauty. We are the original occupants of this land, and it is our responsibility to keep it that way. The defeat of Quoddy Bay LNG and the land lease cancellation are irrefutable examples that Passamaquoddy Bay is an inappropriate location for a liquefied natural gas terminal."
Mary Bassett, another member of Nulankeyutmonen Nkitahkomikon, said: "Split Rock rests easier today." She said the group and its supporters will continue to work to protect Passamaquoddy Bay and that "all land, all humans and animal life deserve a healthy environment."
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