Undiluted empowerment

US Supreme Court allows Sokaogon tribe to set its own water quality standards

Published: Monday 15 July 2002

the Native American tribe of Sokaogon Chippewa in the us' Wisconsin state is a happy lot today. Now, its members can have safe water for themselves and their fields. Thanks to the us Supreme Court, the community has secured the right to lay down its own water quality standards. Significantly, these are higher than those promulgated by the country's state department of natural resources (dnr).

In a case that pitted Sokaogons and the Environmental Protection Agency (epa) against the dnr, the tribe contended that the treated water that it was being supplied from a nearby mine was highly polluted. "After treatment it does not retain the same standard at which the mines had extracted raw water, and it is unfit for cultivation," the petition said. However, the mining company argued that it was adhering to the benchmark prescribed by dnr.

The epa sided with the tribal population, contending that "congress has authorised" it to "treat American Indian tribes in the same way as it treats other citizens".

On the other hand, dnr argued that it had the authority to control water resources within the state and the mines were following the norms. But a federal appeals court panel ruled that the people of Sokaogon were a community and American Indian culture relies heavily on water resources. As a result, the tribe was granted the authority to decide at what standard the mines should return the water. Dale Alberts, president of the mining firm, said the company could comply with stricter limits.

The decision has paved the way for other tribes to fight and take over regulation of their water sources. "We believe that other tribes will now be interested in managing their water resource standards," said Mike Lutz, a dnr lawyer.

In a previous case, the Menominee, Oneida and Lac du Flambeau tribes had sought authority over water quality, but backed out after an epa attorney was charged and later convicted of faking documents.

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