Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Rancho San Diego) on Monday breathed life into a controversial bill requiring Indian tribes to abide by strict state regulations when planning garbage dumps on their sovereign lands.

    Last week, the Peace measure was left for dead in the Senate Appropriations Committee, which voted 6 to 2 against the bill after Indians from the Campo Reservation in southeast San Diego County and elsewhere attacked it as a mean-spirited violation of legal precedent holding that their lands are sovereign and subject only to federal regulations.

    They accused Peace of a "cheap shot" by insisting the Indians were acting as fronts for Chicago- and East Coast-based waste management firms hoping to use the sovereignty issue to get around tougher California environmental standards.  They vowed to challenge the law in court and predicted certain victory, costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

    But those arguments wilted Monday under a second rally by Peace, who persuaded the Senate panel to reconsider the vote. He used testimony from a Riverside County prosecutor and cleverly written amendments to blunt the opposition and resurrect the bill, sending it to the full Senate for a vote.

    The amendments exempted Indian reservations in 26 sparsely populated counties from complying with the bill. The result was to leave unaffected 68 reservations in remote areas -- most of them in Northern California districts where tribes had been pressuring legislators to vote against the bill.

    For Central and Southern California legislators representing the remaining 55 Indian reservations, Peace changed his bill to require state intervention only in cases where there is reason to believe proposed landfills and toxic dumps might leech poisons into neighboring soils and water supplies, which rightly come under state jurisdiction.

    The effect, Peace explained after the hearing, was to make it politically impossible to vote against the bill.

    "How do you defend a vote against a bill that would have said that, if there's an operation on an Indian reservation and it pollutes your back yard, the state would go in and try to protect you?" Peace said. "It becomes a very tough vote."

    It became even tougher when Riverside Assistant Dist. Atty. Dick Nixon, who is investigating a case of illegal toxic dumping on the Soboba Reservation, told the panel that failure to enact the Peace bill would leave policing of the Indian landfills to the Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Indian Affairs -- two agencies he said were quick to claim jurisdiction but slow to respond to the Riverside case.

    "This is a dangerous situation," said Nixon, whose investigation has found several hundred truckloads of lead-contaminated soil dumped in a dry riverbed on the reservation. "To fail to understand the threat to public health and safety in light of a jurisdictional dispute is a disgrace."

    Peace himself closed the testimony with an impassioned speech that sounded more like a Sunday sermon.

    "This bill fundamentally respects the issue of sovereignty," said Peace. "It is only going to say that if you have a (landfill or toxic waste) facility, you must treat the people -- all the people, on the reservation, off the reservation -- with the respect and dignity and concern for their health that we pretend to have for all our citizens.

    "The only reason these companies are here, arguing, attempting to hide in some cases behind the veil of Indian representatives, is they want to build substandard landfills and hazardous waste facilities," he said.

    Peace singled out the Chambers Co. of Pittsburgh and its Sacramento lobbyist, Ralph F. Simoni, as one of the firms working against the bill but refusing to make its opposition public.

    After his speech, the Senate committee voted, 8 to 0, to pass the measure -- a decision that saw many committee members changing their minds dramatically since last week.

    In one case, Sen. James W. Nielsen (R-Rohnert Park) abstained after voting against the bill last week. The Peace amendments exempted 18 of the 34 reservations in his district, a map shows.

    After the hearing, Simoni said Peace's charges were untrue, and that he has personally met with the San Diego-area legislator to explain his client's objections to the bill.

    He added that waste management companies such as Chambers are not trying to use the Indians to dodge environmental standards, but find going through the state environmental bureaucracy "duplicative" of the process needed for federal approval.

    "There seems to be an assumption by Mr. Peace that a landfill company will go onto Indian land, build and operate a faulty landfill," said Simoni. "That assumption is totally erroneous, because the landfill companies such as Chambers are nationwide companies with nationwide reputations.

    "They know that, if they go in and build and operate a landfill that fails to meet the appropriate standards, that they will never build another landfill in this country," he said.

    Peace introduced his bill after learning that the 200-member Campo tribe hoped to pull itself out of poverty by building a 600-acre landfill on the southeastern corner of its 15,000-acre East County reservation. Plans for the landfill have brought protests from neighbors, including a farming cooperative, who say the landfill could poison their underground water supply.

    Chambers Co., as well as the Lusardi Construction Co. of San Diego, are two of the firms bidding for a contract with the tribe, which attorneys have said hopes to make $150,000 a month from the landfill.

Copyright 1990 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
August 21, 1990, Tuesday, San Diego County Edition
SECTION: Metro; Part B; Page 1; Column 2; Metro Desk