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Waste cleanup planned for Indian country

WASHINGTON - Funding to close and upgrade high threat dump sites on reservations is a start, but hundreds of millions more is needed to finish the job.

At an Aug. 11 ceremony, representatives of five federal agencies finalized an agreement of cooperation to provide $4.1 million to assist 18 tribes with either bringing solid waste disposal into compliance or closing them altogether.

A multi-agency tribal solid waste task force established in 1999 is charged with distributing the funds. What is needed to bring more than 1,100 dumpsites on Indian lands, identified by the Indian Health Service, into compliance or closure was estimated to be $126 million. Of that number, 142 are in need of immediate attention. That is what the $4.1 million will begin to address.

"The Federal Tribal Solid Waste Interagency Workgroup partnership will lay the foundation for even greater strides in eliminating health disparities for American Indians and Alaska Natives as healthier environments are established," said Michael Trujillo, IHS director.

It was a historic moment when the five agency representatives signed a memorandum of agreement setting in motion funding to upgrade or close the dump sites. The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior, U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service, Department of Defense, Indian Health Service, and Housing and Urban Development are the cooperative agencies involved.

The agreement establishes short- and long-term goals to assist the tribes with the waste management program. Part of the memorandum links the agencies in a cooperative effort that will utilize technical and managerial aspects that each of the agencies can provide.

The cooperation of the agencies to pool resources that will culminate in a safe and effective plan to improve the health conditions on reservations that lack behind in these services is historic.

"This Open Dump Cleanup Project is a fine example of what we can achieve when we work together. Open dumps can present significant environmental problems and if left uncontrolled could cause health problems to people living near these pollution sources," said Timothy Fields Jr., assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

For years the tribes asked for help in closing or upgrading waste dumps, with some success, yet tribal officials continue to look for the funds to meet federal requirements for upgrading waste facilities.

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Federal agency cooperative efforts will first identify facilities, then work together to bring together the necessary funding for training to tribal governments, technical assistance, planning, implementation, closure and post-closure activities.

"I am proud of the federal agencies that have provided resources to improve waste management in Indian country. I thank the tribal governments for their persistence and cooperation in clarifying the need to address the problems associated with open dumps in their communities," said Lynn G. Cutler, senior advisor to the White House chief of staff for Indian affairs

"This interagency effort is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when agencies work with tribes, and leverage authorities and appropriations for a common purpose. In addition to assisting 18 tribes with the closure or upgrade of high threat open dumps, the project is a significant step toward helping tribes to complete and implement integrated waste management plans, develop realistic solid waste management alternatives, and develop post-closure programs," she said.

The long-range goals of the Tribal Solid Waste Interagency Workgroup provide for quarterly meetings to adjust the plans of an individual tribe to bring the solid waste site into compliance. The workgroup also will continue to assist in the cleanup of open dumps while providing training to the tribes who are in the process of upgrading of closing waste facilities for as long as the recourses last.

The workgroup is lead by the EPA. In case of emergency clean-ups or other emergency work, the EPA will delegate the work to the appropriate participating agency.

Assistance from the workgroup goes beyond the simple closure or upgrading of the waste sites. The agencies involved agreed to make resources available to help tribes with developing and implementing integrated waste management plans for upgrades, alternatives or closure of facilities.

The open dump cleanup project is open to applicants from all federally recognized tribes and Alaskan Native villages.

The workgroup selected 18 tribes to participate in the program and receive funding from the $4.1 million appropriation.

The tribes include the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Tohono O'odham Nation, Blackfeet Nation, White Earth Reservation, Navajo Nation, Melakatla Indian Community, Spokane Tribe, Taos Pueblo, Hoopa Valley Tribe, Mississippi Band of Choctaw, Native Village of Elim, Oglala Sioux Tribe, Igiugig Village Council, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Native Village of Deering, Quileute Tribal Council, Havasupai Tribe and Asa'Carsarmiut Tribal Council.