Courts no help against hog farm

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RAPID CITY, S.D. - Two federal court decisions have left one of the largest potential hog farming operations up in the air and put the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council back in session to find a solution.

A U.S. District Court for South Dakota on June 5 dismissed a lawsuit that put the controversial hog farm on the reservation up for grabs and at the mercy of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council. When the case was dismissed, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe could have then made a decision to shut down the hog farm that produces 96,000 pigs a year.

But on June 9, a different court ruling that stated the lease agreement between Sun Prairie Farms and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe was valid put a different twist on the issue.

Judge Richard Battey ruled that the lease between the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Bell Farms and the BIA was still legitimate. In 1998 then-Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover signed the lease, but later changed his mind and rescinded the lease based on the lack of proper environmental impact statements.

Battey stated that Gover's change of mind on the lease lacked due process.

So, as of now, Sun Prairie continues to operate the 48 barns constructed under a proper lease, until the next move by the tribal council.

Ike Schmidt, tribal vice president said the tribe would appeal the decision. The 1998 lease for up to 288 barns was agreed to by the tribal council headed by President Harold Wilson.

The tribe first filed suit against Sun Prairie to force them to stop operation based on the alleged illegal lease agreement, and Sun Prairie has asked for an injunction against the tribe and the federal government. It was the injunction that was dismissed by the District Court, while Battey ruled on a different matter - the valid lease.

Another lawsuit filed by Sun Prairie asks for restitution if the hog feeding operation is shut down. That litigation will start if the tribe tries to shut the operation down. The company has spent more than $20 million on operations thus far. Battey did not rule on that lawsuit.

After the lease agreements were signed in 1998 various groups came forward to oppose the operation. Celebrities were brought into the area to bring focus to the potential hog operation and its possible pollution of the environment. Concerned Rosebud Area Citizens, The Humane Farming Association, Prairie Hills Audubon Society and the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center collectively sued Sun Prairie to stop the operation pending a proper environmental impact study.

Sun Prairie countersued, and the case ended up in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals after two Sun Prairie victories only to have those overturned by the appellate court and the U.S Supreme Court. That sequence led to the dismissal of Sun Prairie's countersuit.

In the meantime, a new tribal council was seated. William Kindle was elected president and Schmidt vice president - both ran on the anti-hog farm platform. The previous council majority supported the hog operation. Most council members seated on the present council are opposed to the hog farms.

This fall, another election will be held, which could change everything.

Schmidt said the tribe would fight any future attempt to expand the farms during this term of the council.

He also said the tribe has seen no money from the operation of the farm.

"They tried to give us $12,000 but we refused the money," Schmidt said.

Attorneys said it was too early to determine what Battey's decision meant in terms of future judgments.

Neither litigation has any affect on the day-to-day operations of the farms. It's business as usual. The farms employ mostly tribal members, although past history has shown and media stories have borne out the fact that there is a high turnover of employees at the farms.

The barns in operation are located near White River on the northern edge of the Rosebud Reservation.