It’s a sight common on numerous reservations: junked vehicles lying strewn about.
On the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, though, the bulk of the problem has been solved, thanks to an agreement between a company named High Plains Motors, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Fort Peck Tribes. While it may be rare for violations regarding hazardous-waste disposal to result in positive outcomes, Fort Peck is turning out to be an exception.
The settlement hinges on not only penalizing an automotive service center that had improperly disposed of hazardous waste on the reservation, but also enlisting the business itself to help clean up discarded vehicles.
“This innovative environmental project is an example of how EPA enforcement actions can directly benefit our communities,” said Suzanne Bohan, EPA Assistant Regional Administrator, in a statement after the settlement was reached in October. “EPA commends High Plains Motors and Tribal leaders for their commitment to work together to safely remove dozens of abandoned vehicles on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.”
High Plains Motors is an automobile service center and dealership in Wolf Point, Montana, within the Fort Peck Reservation. Over time the company had improperly disposed of such waste products as paint and lacquer thinner, as well as oil waste, in a way that prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to step in. A compliance order was issued in September 2015. The EPA met with High Plains Motors to determine what might be done and what penalties should be imposed. Months later they reached an understanding that satisfied both parties and benefited not only Wolf Point but also the Fort Peck Reservation in general.
In its favor, High Plains Motors took prompt action to correct the problems, said EPA spokesperson Abigail Dean. EPA assessed a financial penalty for the violations but also included an additional stipulation, a “supplemental project,” which can lower the financial penalty.
“This project can obtain really significant environmental and public health benefits in the communities affected by the violations in the first place,” Dean said.
High Plains Motors proposed a project to remove old abandoned and inoperable vehicles. Both parties were excited about the idea and immediately reached out to the Fort Peck Tribes, particularly the Office of Environmental Protection and the Fort Peck Housing Authority.
“We wanted to make sure the problem of these vehicles was a real concern in the community,” Dean said.
The Housing Authority did an informal survey and counted approximately 200 vehicles in and around Wolf Point that might be eligible for such a project. To Wilfred Lambert, it was an eye-opener to find out just how many abandoned vehicles were around the Wolf Point community. He enforces solid waste codes for the Fort Peck Tribes and said the Housing Authority was also concerned about these vehicles around houses and have rules against it but had simply never enforced it.
“I think that was big for the tribal community and the whole Wolf Point community,” he said.
With the support of the tribes, the project was a go. High Plains Motors will pay a $5,758 penalty and remove junk vehicles on the Fort Peck Reservation to avoid an even higher penalty. All three parties—the EPA, High Plains Motors and the tribe—see the agreement as a win for all.
Sixty-eight vehicles are being removed at no expense to tribal members. EPA determined the removal of that number was proportionate with the violations after the financial penalty was included.
“We felt it was a fair settlement,” Dean said. “We couldn’t expect them to spend more money than was really fair. It was rewarding to see such a collaborative effort unfold and to know we’re not only helping reduce blight and pollution but are also building relationships between EPA, the tribes, and the business and Fort Peck communities.”
The company was given two years to finish the project, and it is already underway, with 13 vehicles removed within a week after the October settlement was announced. Jeff Presser, with High Plains Motors, was credited with pursuing this option.
“We thought we should do something positive for where we live and help clean up a certain amount of abandoned cars,” Presser said. “We can benefit our community and our reservation. It should be a positive thing, and we’re glad we’re able to do it.”