How much can the government govern American Indian reservations?
In this case, the Indians in question are the 200 members of the Campo Band, which is trying to raise itself from the hardscrabble poverty of its rural southeast county reservation by offering a small portion of its land for use as a garbage dump.
The main selling point: Since the dump would be on sovereign Indian lands, private operators wouldn't have to brave the costly and time-consuming bureaucratic hassle of winning official approval from state and local environmental agencies.
The plans have riled the neighbors -- the town of Boulevard as well as citizens of an adjacent whole-Earth commune -- who say the landfill could escape the proper official review only to pose a danger to their ground water.
And now Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Rancho San Diego) says he's more than willing to elevate the rural San Diego County dispute into a federal case -- literally.
He's sponsoring a bill that challenges the notion of Indian sovereignty by forcing the Campo and the 116 tribes, scattered throughout California on reservations or smaller rancherias, to comply with state and local environmental regulations when building a solid or hazardous waste dump on their own lands -- a requirement he predicts will eventually be litigated before the U.S. Supreme Court. Peace's bill has already cleared the Assembly and will be debated before the state Senate Toxics and Public Safety Management Committee today.
Representatives of the Campo and other California tribes have vowed to fight the Peace measure, saying it would be an obvious violation of their sovereign right to do with their land as they please. They say a string of federal court cases have clearly spelled out that American Indians must follow federal regulations but are exempt from state and local regulations that could affect a wide range of reservation land-use and business activities, such as running bingo halls.
"It's a very dangerous precedent from a tribal point of view to give up their status to satisfy unwarranted concerns of outsiders," said Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento attorney representing four Indian tribes in Northern California. He said the Indian tribes see the Peace bill as a "thinly veiled attack on their historic status," which also exempts them from zoning regulations, paying state income tax and sales tax on items delivered to the reservations.
"You have to remember that Indian people have a long memory of what the state of California has done to their people and their lands. It was a little over 100 years ago that Indians were being wiped out by state-sponsored ventures, whether it was the gold pioneers or whether it was taking their lands for the Southern Pacific Railroad.
"There were always good, legitimate reasons to the white man why they wanted to take over the Indian culture and lands, and I suspect it is the same thing this time."
But Peace says that arguments that his bill will encroach on Indian sovereignty are simply political "cover" for the fact that the tribes are marketing their regulatory independence to East Coast garbage companies -- some of them unscrupulous and possibly Mob-connected -- as a way to get around stringent state and local controls.
"It's nothing but cover," Peace said earlier this week. "This idea that it is an 'insult to us' is ludicrous. On what basis is this an insult? The fact that they are going to be subject to the same kind of regulations as everybody else?
"It's a ludicrous argument on the face of it," Peace said. "It's set up to deflect attention from the garbage industry guys who want to go around regulations by going on the reservations. They are using the Indians for cover. That's what's insulting. They're manipulating them."
Peace said he decided to sponsor the bill after hearing about plans by the Campo tribe of Mission Indians to put a 600-acre solid waste dump on the southeast corner of their 15,000-acre reservation in East County. The desolate, chaparral-covered Indian lands stretch from the Tecate Mountains south to the Mexican border, about 70 miles east of San Diego.
The proposed dump could take up to 3,000 tons of solid waste a day for up to 20 years, and preliminary plans had suggested using cars on the San Diego and Imperial Valley Railroad to haul the refuse from San Diego and Chula Vista to the remote site.
Campo tribe attorney Kevin Gover, a Pawnee Indian in Albuquerque, said the Indians see the solid waste dump as a way to catapult themselves from the economic pits to prosperity.
"These are extremely poor people," Gover said. "There is an incredible amount of joblessness, an extraordinarily low education level. It's one of the most economically depressed Indian communities that I've seen, and we have worked with tribes in the last four years in 15 states."
Now, said Gover, a number of private garbage companies are vying for the opportunity to build a solid waste dump on the land. Plans call for a recycling facility and composting operation in addition to the dump, which Gover emphasized will accept no hazardous or toxic materials. The tribe expects to have an environmental assessment of the proposed dump completed in about four months. It could take another year before the Bureau of Indian Affairs gives the green light for the project.
To ease fears about the safety of the proposed landfill, Gover said the Campo tribe is willing to go beyond the mandatory federal environmental requirements for such a facility. It is negotiating to hire state and San Diego County officials as consultants on the landfill, which would be run by a private operator.
"What we propose is essentially we would retain those agencies as our experts to help us review monitoring reports, to conduct random inspections and provide the expertise the band does not have," Gover said.
But, Gover added, the tribe is not willing to submit the project to the normal state and local review and certification. "The state process is Byzantine and will delay the project at least five years," he said.
The assurances of environmental quality, however, have done little to ease the fears of those living near the Campo reservation. One concerned group is the 15 or so organic farmers on the 75-acre Zendik Farms, a combination arts foundation and farming cooperative. Founded in 1969 by rock musicians fleeing Los Angeles, the group works the land about a mile away from the Campo reserve.
"The problem is we're dependent solely on ground water here," said Arol Wulf, who started Zendik Farms with her full-blooded Indian husband. "If there's a leakage from the dump . . . our ground water becomes polluted. Our water feeds off the same streams that go underneath the dump.
"If something goes wrong, it's entirely up to the Indians whether they will fix it or not," Wulf said. "They form their own (Environmental Protection Agency), they issue their own permits, they take care of everything themselves. I think this type of operation, you have to have as much outside monitoring as you can get."
Added Peace: "The land doesn't end at those artificial (reservation) boundaries. The aquifers and the streams and whatnot all go through these lands. . . . We have to recognize that waste travels great distances and permeates the land and environmental conditions many miles around."
Peace also says he doesn't 'understand why the Campo tribe says its environmental standards will be better than what the state demands, but still refuses to go through the normal inspection and certification procedures.
If the reason is the notion of sovereignty, Peace said he's more than willing to have the issue settled in the courts if his bill is approved by the Legislature.
Although he has received a copy of a U.S. Department of Interior letter declaring that his measure violates court rulings on Indian self-determination, Peace says a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court Case held that the Pala Indian Tribe in San Diego County had to abide by state regulations to sell liquor to the general public on its reservation. That judicial precedent could be extended to the issue of landfills, he said.
"We expect that we're going to be litigated and . . . we think we've crafted a bill that will meet the test," he said.
As a safeguard, Peace said he's also written into the bill a provision that prohibits any municipal, county or state governmental agency from sending its garbage to a dump that has not been certified by local and state environmental officials. Such a prohibition would cut off the supply of garbage to the Indians even if the Supreme Court would throw out direct environmental control of Indian lands.
Indian advocates predict that the Peace bill in any form is doomed to a defeat in the courts if the Legislature decides to pass it. With their future economic prosperity at stake, the Campo and other California Indian tribes will not stand by to see lawmakers take away their right to market their independence and use of their land, they say.
"Indians can't put up a McDonald's on a land base that's 50 miles from a populated area, with nothing but dirt roads for access," said Dickstein, explaining the need for immunity from local controls. "They don't have a lot of alternatives, except to operate around the edges of the economy."
Campo Indian attorney Gover said his clients will take a hard line against Peace's bill.
it. We will litigate. We will win," he said.