On October 1, U.S. EPA granted Oklahoma’s recent request to continue handling environmental regulation in Oklahoma’s Indian Country, following a Supreme Court ruling declaring nearly half of Oklahoma tribal land that should have been treated as such for decades because Congress never “disestablished” the reservations.
In a 5-4 decision led by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court found that 19 million acres of land in the eastern half of Oklahoma is part of the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations’ reservations. Although the Supreme Court case involved a matter of criminal jurisdiction, it also raised the prospect that land in the eastern half of Oklahoma might be removed from state regulatory jurisdiction and fall under EPA regulatory jurisdiction.
In an October 1 letter to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler noted that normally, EPA doesn’t include Native territory when approving a state’s environmental programs; however, the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA) allows a state to assume environmental jurisdiction on tribal land in the state if certain requirements are met.
An EPA spokesperson said the agency is following legal requirements and that the decision essentially preserves the status quo in Oklahoma. He noted that existing exemptions still stand and that tribes may apply for regulatory oversight of these environmental programs through EPA’s Treatment as a State process.
However, the decision was criticized by tribal leaders concerned with the swift decision to apply the SAFETEA provision.