PABLO — Acting Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency Andrew Wheeler selected the Flathead Reservation for his first trek into Indian Country since taking office in July. “I wanted hear first hand what are the issues and problems that reservations have. I want to make sure we have an open dialogue,” he said.
Wheeler met with representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to discuss government-to-government issues regarding environmental protection. “I think we have a lot of shared goals between the tribes and the US EPA,” he said. “Our mission is to protect public health and the environment and I know that mission is shared by the tribes.”
During his meeting with members of the Natural Resources Department (NRD), Arlee District Tribal Council Representative Shelly Fyant discussed the sluggish response community members have received from the EPA regarding the Smurfit-Stone mill cleanup efforts in Frenchtown.
Wheeler said the issue is an example of complex EPA regulations. “The federal regulatory process can be extremely complex,” he said. “We’re wanting to make sure we can sift through the complexities and get to the real problems and make sure we’re providing the assistance that’s needed or the clarity and certainty so that the tribes can implement the environmental statutes on their own. We believe that environment protection is done best the closer you get to the impacted communities.”
For tribes, complex EPA codes have offered protection for Indigenous lands. This past month, a Montana Federal judged ordered the US State Department to conduct a full environment investigation before construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline can begin in the state. The Fort Belknap and Rose Bud Sioux tribes filed a suit against President Donald Trump’s administration for, according to NPR, “failing to adhere to historical treaty boundaries and circumvented environmental impact analysis.”
CKN asked Wheeler to describe the EPA’s stance on corporate expansion in Indigenous lands, specifically in cases such as the construction of the Key Stone XL pipeline.
“When President Trump called me and asked me to take over as the acting administrator of the Agency he asked me to continue to protect the water, continue to clean up the air, and continue to deregulate in order to create economic opportunity and jobs,” he said. “(President Trump) knows we can do all three, I know we can do all three, and I think your tribal leadership here knows we can do all three. We can protect the environment and create an environment for job growth. Both are very important. They are not mission exclusive goals.”
Since taking office, Wheeler has faced scrutiny for his past work as a lobbyist for energy corporations, particularly in area of coal.
Local issues discussed by member of NRD included: air quality impact of multiple cases of fire eruption at a local tire company, excessive use of pesticides seeping into waterways, and CSKT’s continued efforts to avoid contamination of invasive species in Flathead Lake.
Following his stop in Flathead, Wheeler continued to his tour of reservations at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. He said he was leaving with a message he intended to share:
“One of the tribal leaders said the goal for the tribe here is to protect the environment for the next seven generations and I think that is an incredible concept,” he said. “I plan to take that and use that in future speeches going forward. A lot of people say we need protect it for our children but we need to protect it for the next seven generations.”