EPA Grants Oklahoma Right to Regulate Tribal Lands

In McGirt v. Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that, by treaty, roughly half of Oklahoma is still Native American territory and thus under the five Tribes’ jurisdiction including for taxation and regulation. (Kmusser, Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the landmark Supreme Court ruling on July 9 that upheld Tribal regulatory authority over much of the original Native American territory in eastern Oklahoma, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has granted Gov. Kevin Stitt’s request to maintain regulatory control over environmental issues on many Tribal lands. 

READ MORE: Landmark Victory: Congress Never Disestablished Eastern Okla. as Indian Reservation 

McGirt v. Oklahoma impeded the state from regulating in those Tribal territories. But a 2005 statute specific to Oklahoma requires the EPA to approve a request from the state to administer the regulatory program “in areas of the state that are in Indian country, without any further demonstration of authority by the state,” according to a letter that EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler sent to Gov. J. Kevin Stitt (R-OK) on October 1.

The EPA green light pertains only to areas of Tribal lands where Oklahoma had previously implemented regulatory programs prior to the McGirt ruling.

Giving Oklahoma regulatory control strips many of the state’s Tribes of their sovereignty over environmental issues. It also grants the state the ability to dump hazardous waste on Tribal lands, among other potentially hazardous environmental actions, without legal recourse by Tribes. 

The EPA gave Tribes a limited and brief consultation period before issuing its decision. “It’s disappointing the Cherokee Nation’s request that EPA consult individually with affected Oklahoma Tribes was ignored,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said Monday.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation announced its disappointment in the EPA’s decision. “Like the SAFETEA Act iself, this was a swift move meant to circumvent the appropriate time and available information to adequately respond. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation submitted a request for Tribal consultation just two days after the Governor submitted his request. The Nation was granted two consultations, but it seems the concerns raised did not suffice. The Nation will continue seeking remedies to the situation.”

An in-depth report by TYT notes that these hazardous chemicals could be carcinogenic PCBs or byproducts of petroleum procurement and refining. Last year, the state was responsible for the fourth largest petroleum industry in the country. 

“As required by Section 10211(a) of SAFETEA, EPA approves the State of Oklahoma’s July 22, 2020, request to administer the environmental regulatory programs described above in the specified areas of Indian country,” Wheeler’s letter concludes.  

The July 9 Supreme Court determination in McGirt v. Oklahoma marked a rare occasion that the U.S. government has upheld the treaty rights of a Tribal Nation. “On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise,” wrote Justice Gorsuch in his opening line that will reverberate throughout history. But the EPA’s move undermines Tribal sovereignty. 

“After over 500 years of oppression, lies, genocide, ecocide, and broken treaties, we should have expected the EPA ruling in favor of racist Gov. Stitt of Oklahoma, yet it still stings,” Casey Camp-Horinek, environmental ambassador and elder and hereditary drum keeper for the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, told TYT.

READ MORE: From the Editor: Half of Okla. Is Native Land