Rosebud council considering referendum on hog farm

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ROSEBUD, S.D. - The future of a corporate farming interest operating a hog facility on tribal property in Mellette County hangs in the balance as tribal leaders consider rescinding the lease if tribal enrollees overwhelmingly oppose the issue in a referendum later this year.

The issue has been in the courts for more than a year and half which prevented Sun Prairie, a tribal partnership, and Bell Farms, from expanding its existing operation west of White River.

A decision by U.S. District Judge Charles B. Kornmann in March lifted an injunction blocking the company from starting the construction of the second phase of its building plan for the $5 million facility.

Rosebud Sioux Tribal Chairman William Kindle promised voters during his election campaign last year that he would address opposition to hog farm, giving tribal members the opportunity to vote on the issue. If enough tribal members oppose the farm, the tribal council may rescind its 25-year lease with the partnership, Kindle said.

In September of 1998 the tribe, under Norman Wilson's administration, began construction on the first phase of the facility in Mellette County which included plans for three finishing sites to fatten hogs for market. The second phase included five sow sites and five additional finishing sites.

"I still oppose the thing," Kindle said in an interview. "I was never in favor of it, from the beginning."

The issue landed in court after the lease was quickly pushed through channels without much opportunity for tribal members to express their views. There was no vote, a limited comment period and the local Bureau of Indian Affairs office issued a report finding "no significant impact" on the environment without the benefit of an environmental impact statement. Those opposed to the issued say there was not adequate information to make an informed decision on the lease and the hog facility.

Troubling to tribal council members is the fear the operation could contaminate ground water and a water line being laid just south of the facility.

"We can't up and walk away from a contract like that without it costing a tremendous amount of money," Kindle said.

Canceling the lease will impose financial penalties which may require the tribe to pay a large settlement to close down the operation, but Kindle said the long-term costs could be higher for cleaning the site up after Bell Farms is finished.

One of the disappointments Kindle voiced was the unfulfilled promise of bringing 240 jobs to the reservation. He estimated that fewer than one-third of the workers employed at the facility are enrolled tribal members and the initial operation only generated about 30 jobs.

"Originally when we talked at the meeting in Norris, the number of people they mentioned once they were in complete operation was about 240 jobs," he said, in the first phase of the $5 million facility.

Abandonment of the lease raises questions about the effect it will have on the tribe's ability to attract industry and partnerships, he said.

"Most people want to be comfortable and confident that they will be able to stay here for what ever term the lease and do their business. Most don't feel comfortable if they know they can't get a long-term lease.

"I do believe if it is the right kind of business people like and approve of, people wouldn't have any problems with us giving a long-term lease, like the hog farm has, as long as it is something they approve of."

The chairman said if the referendum shows overwhelming opposition, the tribe could opt to dissolve the contract. "Before we get that far we need to sit down with the attorneys and Bell Farms. The bottom line is what it would cost the tribe."

During a March 27 tribal council meeting the issue was under debate. A resolution was introduced that would remove the tribe as a plaintiff in a lawsuit where it was paired with Bell Farms in an action to allow the continued development of the facility.

A local grass-roots organization, several environmental groups and federal agencies attempted to stop the operation of the hog farm, but the recent ruling by the federal judge stymied efforts.

A change in tribal leadership has prompted a change in direction and tribal council members are considering joining the groups and the federal agencies to stop the operation.

However, there are council members who favor continued operation of the corporate hog farm because they fear slowed economic development and see it as a way to create sorely needed jobs.

Along with the judge's order to allow Bell Farms to proceed, Kornmann also ruled that members of the grass-roots and environmental groups can't impair company efforts to expand.

Taking a chance on violating the terms of the order, James W. Doughtery, an attorney representing the Concerned Rosebud Area Citizens, Prairie Hill Audubon Society of Western South Dakota, the Humane Farming Association and the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, outlined some steps the tribe could take to discourage the continued operation.

"The tribe can't adopt new environmental regulations that apply only to the hog farm. The tribe can't unreasonably deny roads, but Doughtery said the contract doesn't require the tribe to support it nor does it require that the tribe extend water to the facility."

Other options available to the tribe are contacting its congressional delegation to support its efforts and talking to Bell Farms officials expressing the tribe's disapproval of the operation, he said.

"They may cling to the lease, but the psychological effects of telling them they are not wanted" might be sufficient reason for them to pull out. The desire of the tribe to rescind the lease might be enough to make financial backers uncomfortable, Doughtery said.

Area resident Bill Huber said he favored the use of the land for the hog facility and suggested the four groups intervening were simply using tribe as part of its agenda.

"The Number One problem with economic development is credibility. When the Rosebud Sioux Tribe gives its word and doesn't keep it, it isn't going to attract new business," Huber said.

"There are some tribal members working out there. I see it. They are developing their lives. They are getting part of the dream, the self-support, the self-sufficiency, and the pride in themselves. Their children are proud of them. I think it would be terrible for the tribe to kill that.

Huber said, "The previous administration felt it was safe. They voted for it. Do you think any of them people want to destroy this reservation? I'm an avid supporter of conservation. Do you think I would support something that would pollute this country?" Huber asked.

Christine Dunham, a former tribal councilwoman from the Back Pipe Community, told the tribal council that tribal members are desperately seeking jobs and its role needs to be a support system furthering economic development.

Dunham, who voted for the project, said the tribe needs to allow the hog farm to continue its development.

"I don't know why people are so against it. You say the tribe wants to change it. I don't. I represent the people who need jobs. I don't sit on the council today, but I still I keep them in mind."

Huber and Dunham assured tribal councilmen that waste from operation of the farm wouldn't contaminate the area.

"Everything is self contained. The water lines are going to run by there and it isn't going to have any effect," Dunham said.

"Remember 15 years down the road, we might be able to own it. We might be able to run it. We need to take a chance. We need to take a risk because the land we can use and people need jobs. We have to keep striving to do more things for our people. We need to use our land," she said.

Rosalee Little Thunder, a tribal member and member of the board of the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, told the council the tribe would do better advocating different types of small business.

"The arguments are good. We need employment, but there is a better way to do that."

Little Thunder reminded councilmen of various enterprises that had failed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and of pork production facilities which were quick to pull out of the state.

"As soon as you put your resources, faith and trust in outside companies that are only driven by greed, the need to make more money, then you are going to lose," she said.

"This isn't about not being honorable and breaking your word. This is about waking up and seeing the truth ? protecting your people and the land.

Councilman Wayne Ducheneaux, who represents the Ideal/Winner District, supported the pork facility saying Bell officials had promised to locate one of its sites in his district. The 17-year council member voted to authorize the lease. He said his constituents want the site.

"We want one in Ideal. I say we have a lease with Bell Farms, honor it. If we continue to back down ? this has happened more than once ? nobody is going to come out here and finance a business of any kind."

Rosebud Councilman Rodney M. Bordeaux opposes the operation because he said he didn't believe the company was keeping its word to employ the number of tribal residents it suggested when the facility was under consideration.

He supported a referendum so tribal enrollees were given a voice directing the tribal council of their wishes.

"They weren't up front with us in the beginning. I don't trust them. I don't think it is as clean as they said it would be. I'm for pulling back," Bordeaux said.

Councilwoman Claudette Arcoren, who represents the Grass Mountain/Upper Cut Meat communities, said, "I'm opposed to it. My people don't want it. Like Rodney said, we're going to get a referendum vote which should have been done in the first place.

"I want something clean. The wind generators are clean. There are other things that are clean that can help our people."

Arcoren said, "In 15 years we're going to be so disease-ridden and most of us are going to be sick. In 15 years they will have their money and what they came here for."

While the tribal council tabled the resolution, it will brought back after tribal leaders meet with legal counsel to determine what can be done with the lease and what financial penalties are likely to result from voiding it.