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Blackfeet hope to finally close dump

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BROWNING, Mont. - Like many similar facilities across the nation, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation's main landfill is outdated and out of compliance with environmental regulations.

But finding alternatives is proving to be a bigger challenge than expected and the 70-acre site causes continuing headaches for tribal and federal officials.

Federal regulators say they can't do much to help because current laws don't give them much authority, except in situations where imminent dangers exist. And state officials are largely out of the mix because recent federal regulations keep them from having jurisdiction over reservation sites.

Located on rolling, windswept prairie a few miles northeast of Browning, the landfill was purchased by the Blackfeet Tribe in 1975. Solid waste collection and disposal in the area was managed for a short time by a private contractor, but that agreement was terminated because of poor performance, reports a recent site study.

Over the years, the Indian Health Service, the BIA, and the National Park Service worked with tribal and town officials to develop plans to ensure that solid waste is disposed of properly around the reservation and from the east side of neighboring Glacier National Park. But a lack of funding and a shortage of critical equipment hamstrung those efforts for decades, says Robert DesRosier, director of the tribe's Utilities Department.

Continuing problems at the site prompted state officials, who once had regulatory control, to revoke the town of Browning's waste management license in 1988 because of ongoing problems with blowing trash, fires, and insect and animal pests. Forced to operate under a series of temporary agreements, the landfill limped along until 1997, when all but a portion of the site was shut down by the tribe after the federal Environmental Protection Agency adopted more stringent regulations nationwide.

The remaining segment of the site, where 10 to14 tons of trash is still dumped each day, operates on an interim basis while officials figure out what to do.

"The garbage has to go somewhere," observes DesRosier, who previously served 12 years as Browning's town manager.

A main problem is that the landfill has no liner to capture liquids seeping into the ground. Luckily, however, the area has a natural clay layer that's helped prevent damage to groundwater. But on the surface, blowing garbage and fires remain an issue, in part because operators can't adequately cover debris with their undersized machinery.

Record-keeping has been lax at times, officials concur, and no one knows for sure what all has been dumped at the site.

"With the federal regulations, there's no way we could keep it open," says DesRosier, who also serves as chairman of Browning's Board of Education.

"It's just a terrible, terrible liability the community has here. We've got to get it out of here."

The ongoing problems have prompted IHS and other federal agencies to stop having their refuse hauled to the site. Tribal officials say the subsequent loss of revenue and logistical support has worsened matters.

"IHS and BIA don't want to contribute to an noncompliant landfill because they could be liable for cleanup," says Tina Diebold, who works in EPA's Helena office.

Gerald Wagner, director of the tribe's environmental programs, says that the new EPA rules prompted the tribe to look at three main options - building a new site, bringing the existing landfill up to standards or building an off-site, transfer station where garbage could be stored before being hauled elsewhere.

Initially, tribal leaders opted for a new landfill, which was predicted to cost about $1.2 million. One reason for that decision is that local control would be retained, but Wagner, who still supports the concept, says funding was hard to come by. He adds that the tribe and its members can't afford to finance the project. Updating the existing site seems out of the question, especially considering that it appears to be nearing capacity.

"We thought money would come in a year, no problem," Wagner explains. "But it's just become a real drawn-out process. Unless you're going to make some noise, you don't get heard."

In April, frustrated tribal leaders switched course and decided to support the third alternative - building an enclosed transfer station and paying someone else to dispose of the reservation waste. The proposal is gaining steam, DesRosier says while praising Tribal Council members for taking a stand on the issue.

As part of the project, DesRosier wants to establish a new recycling center at the transfer station site, which will tentatively be located next to rail service on the south side of town. The concept fits with the Native tradition of conserving resources, he says, and it would help reduce the amount of waste that needs to be hauled. He'd also like to set up recycling stations in outlying areas, as well.

"If everyone is just more conscious of the program, it will work better," DesRosier says. "I think a good recycling program here would pay for an employee."

Another supporter of the transfer idea, he says, is IHS, which is offering about $300,000 to help with the project. More money is being sought for equipment, and a five-year contract is pending with the private landfill operator in Great Falls, 142 miles away. The proposed contract calls for the reservation to pay $18 a ton to have its garbage hauled, but that doesn't include start-up costs, which are still being calculated.

DesRosier says a new landfill could cost $75 to $80 a ton to operate.

"We have people now who will go dump in a coulee because they don't have the $3 to go to the (existing) landfill," he says, adding he hopes to convince the BIA and the National Park

Service to run their waste through the proposed station.

Glacier County officials are teaming up with the project, he says, and the BIA has made about $180,000 available to help with equipment. He adds that EPA officials helped however they can.

The EPA's Diebold says she's pleased with the progress the tribe has made. But she noted that current federal law, especially under recent court decisions, only allows EPA to create a bare-bones framework for solid-waste programs, especially when it comes to transfer stations.

While landfills across the nation are regulated under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Diebold says only minimal standards have been adopted. This gives states and tribes a lot of leeway when it comes to developing solid-waste plans, but it also can create "orphan" programs in areas like Browning, where money is tight.

One problem, she explains, is that a federal court decision handed down in 1996 says EPA can only approve solid waste plans formulated by states, not tribes, because tribes are defined as "municipalities" in RCRA provisions. Therefore, she says, tribes are largely on their own when it comes to developing waste-disposal plans, adopting related regulations or licensing landfills and transfer stations.

Related to the void of federal authority, she adds, is an inability to provide federal funding, except for a very limited number of "demonstration" projects.

Nonetheless, Diebold says she's "encouraged" by what Blackfeet officials have been able to accomplish so far. But, she adds, more hard decisions still have to be made.

"There's only enough capital to start a new landfill or to have a tightly controlled transfer station," Diebold says. "They must go with one or the other. They won't be able to turn back" once a final decision is made.