Dancing with Garbage on Sioux Lands

THOMAS A. DASCHLE

February 26, 1991|By THOMAS A. DASCHLE

WASHINGTON. — The sweeping beauty portrayed in Kevin Costner's epic drama ''Dances With Wolves'' is about to become host to one of the largest garbage dumps in America.

Recently, over the objection of tribal members, the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council in South Dakota signed a contract with a Connecticut-based waste-disposal firm to develop a 5,000-acre garbage dump that will accept waste from Minneapolis, Denver and beyond. The proposed dump is 70 miles from the site of the massacre at Wounded Knee and in the heart of the unspoiled prairie America recently viewed in ''Wolves.''

Unfortunately, the Sioux are not alone. The garbage scheme is part of a disturbing trend that is developing all across America. One by one, reservations in California, Arizona, Oklahoma, New York and South Dakota are being approached by waste-disposal firms with plans for large-scale garbage and hazardous-waste disposal sites.

And why have reservations suddenly become targets for mountains of toxic waste and garbage? Have these disposal firms suddenly developed a philanthropic interest in helping those who live in Indian country?

The answer is disturbingly simple. They are looking for ways to dodge the state environmental regulations that have been developed to protect Indians and non-Indians alike from poorly managed dumps. Garbage and hazardous-waste firms are all too aware of the fact that the majority of reservations, which are governed by sovereign tribal leaders, are void of strict environmental regulations and the technical personnel to properly oversee such facilities. They are also keenly aware that many tribes, often faced with unemployment rates of 80 percent or higher, are desperate for both jobs and capital.

One need only look at the contract the Rosebud Sioux tribe signed with the Connecticut firm (which has never developed or operated a waste site) to see why these companies are knocking on the tribal door with the promise of a few jobs and a few dollars.

The contract says, ''In no event shall any environmental regulation or standards of South Dakota be applicable to this project.'' Worse yet, the contract forbids the Sioux from enacting new laws to govern the waste project. If the tribe attempts to develop environmental standards to further protect its people, then the tribe must compensate the disposal firm for any profits it may lose because of the new standards.

The contract says that the only regulation would come from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and that the disposal firm, not the tribe, will have the ''sole discretion'' to determine content at the dump site, as well as to monitor the quality of groundwater running beneath the site. The EPA has neither sufficient funding nor staff to properly oversee existing waste dumps, much less new proposals such as those being planned for the nation's reservations.

In return for these sacrifices, the Sioux will receive a little more than $1 per ton for the garbage they will be host to forever.

The nation faces a dilemma regarding its landfills and the 450,000 tons of waste we produce every day. However, I do not believe the solution to this problem is to make the reservations the dumping ground for the nation's municipal and toxic waste. It is counterproductive to efforts to find long-term, meaningful solutions to waste and garbage production. Seventy percent of municipal solid waste is either recyclable aluminum, glass or newsprint, or can be composted.

The longer we give cities and corporations a place to dump their mountains of garbage and waste, the longer it will take for them to implement a serious strategy to reduce the amount of waste they produce. And why should they when a disposal firm can send garbage to the Sioux for only $1 per ton?

I and others have spent years attempting to improve economic )) conditions on the nation's reservations. It's sad that the only economic hope we can offer the poor and disadvantaged is to become a receptacle for the waste produced by those of wealth -- and then at bargain-basement prices.

Senator Daschle, D-S.D., serves on the Select Committee on Indian Affairs. He wrote this article for the Christian Science Monitor.

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