COLUSA, Calif. ? The Cortina Band of Wintun Indians has teamed with a Canadian waste company to open a garbage landfill on the tribe's reservation. A group of local residents is claiming that the deal stinks.
The project is the result of a green light given by the BIA for Earthworks Industries to operate under a 25-year lease that would manage somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 million tons of garbage.
Colusa County, where Cortina is located, has filed an appeal with the Department of the Interior over the project and is now in the hands of a judge with the Indian Appeals Board.
The problem for a group of Colusa County residents is that the Cortina lands sit in the eastern Coastal Range foothills above the Sacramento Valley. Colusa city attorney Tedd Mehr, who is representing the county residents feels that this project poses several hazards to the people and agriculture in the valley below, including the potential to enter the watershed of nearby Cortina Creek.
In 1998 Colusa County passed a ballot measure that required a two-thirds approval for any garbage landfill projects. Mehr believes Earthworks Industries is using the Cortina Band and their sovereign land status to circumvent local laws and regulations governing projects of this type.
Mehr, who likens the project to the plot of the old Broadway musical "The Music Man," also says he has concerns regarding the financial viability of Earthworks Industries to guarantee the stability of such a project.
"Here you have a foreign company with a shaky financial history building a garbage dump on Indian land, which has sovereign immunity, my question is what happens if this company can't fund the entire 25 years, what recourse do county residents have if this turns into an environmental disaster. What guarantee do they have that someone will be watching this as long as it remains toxic over the next several hundred years."
Though Mehr concedes that even Indian land is still subject to federal environmental guidelines he says his greatest concern is the oversight of the project which would be governed by the tribe and characterizes this as "the fox guarding the hen house." Since it would be a tribal agency, known as the Wintun Environmental Protection Agency (WEPA) that would over see regulatory oversight, Mehr feels this poses a potential conflict of interest.
Additionally Mehr wonders if the 150-plus member tribe, with only five percent of the tribal members living on the reservation, would have a large enough pool of members who would be educated and experienced enough to monitor such a project.
WEPA director Kesner Flores feels that the tribe has an ample human resource base to monitor the project. He says that the tribe must think "several generations ahead" and that they want to maintain their own land.
Flores points to long list of achievements and regional associations that WEPA works with, including work with the federal EPA on monitoring air and water quality on the reservation.
"From an environmental standpoint, we are national leaders, we have to monitor our own water and air quality and have been successful," says Flores.
Though he does not hold a college degree, Flores says he is qualified based on extensive environmental training courses and has worked with hazardous waste. He also says that he has two decades experience in the medical field, where he directly worked with cleanup of toxic substances.
Flores claims that the Colusa County, who opposes the project is upset in that they will receive no revenue for the garbage landfill and says that the county has never expressed concern for off reservation projects that effect tribal members and are destructive to the environment.
The Cortina Band actually opposed a garbage landfill that the county had proposed near the reservation, because, says Flores, it would have been built near a creek bed and they worried about water contamination.
As to the charge of tribal absenteeism, Flores points out that many of the tribes neighboring non-Indian landholders are also absentee landlords whose cattle ranches and other operations that often effect Cortina tribal lands.
Flores also says that the tribe is working on several projects with the Colusa County Board of Supervisors where he feels confident that a resolution can be made to their dispute.
One of the concerns Mehr's group also cites is whether Earthworks Industries is economically sound. The Securities and Exchange Commission issued a list of 13 concerns over the Canadian company's risk factor, including that the company has no physical assets.
In fact the Cortina project is Earthworks' sole project at the moment. Earthworks president David Atkinson says the reason for this is because all of their assets have been tied up in getting this project off the ground.
"Yes, I would characterize this as a small company," says Atkinson, who answers the main company phone line himself. "As such all of our resources have been geared toward getting this project through all the regulatory levels."
Both Flores and Atkinson point out that though Indian tribes are not beholden to local and state regulations they still must adhere to federal guidelines in all projects, including an Environmental Impact Statement and other regulatory assessments that often exceed state and local guidelines.
The two men also insist that the company must come up with funds, in the form of a bond, which would cover the cost of closing the garbage landfill and its subsequent monitoring if the project was in jeopardy, environmental or financial.
However, Tim Taylor, an attorney who is representing Colusa County in all matters relating to this project, says that in his experience the amount for this emergency bond, is not necessarily a guarantee against disaster.
"The amount of money put into these kinds of bonds is often equal parts science and guess work," says Taylor.
Taylor says that closure costs can vary depending on the type of closure needed. For example, a so-called clean closure, one where there are not any additional problems can cost much less than if methane gas or some kind of environmental hazard is also present.
Taylor says it is this and other potential off-site impacts, such as road traffic, that the county is attempting to address in its appeal to the Department of Interior.
Flores, for his part says that the tribe has been meeting with the county and feels confident that most of the issues can be worked out.
If the Department of Interior signs off on the project Cortina and Earthworks still face several regulatory hoops with other federal agencies.