Swayed by emotional pleas from San Diego County residents and hints of lead poisoning in Riverside County, an initially skeptical Senate committee approved a bill Thursday that would force California Indian tribes to comply with state environmental rules when building garbage dumps on their sovereign lands.

    The committee hearing before the Senate Toxics and Public Safety Management Committee provided the toughest test yet for the measure, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Rancho San Diego) and inspired by the controversy surrounding plans by the impoverished Campo Tribe of Mission Indians to put a solid-waste landfill on a small portion of its southeast San Diego County reservation.

    Initial questions by committee chairman Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) seemed to indicate that the measure faced overwhelming odds because of a legal opinion by the Legislature's own attorney that the proposal would run afoul of federal law, which has long held that American Indians are sovereign and need comply only with federal regulations. As a result, Indian reservations are exempt from local zoning requirements and state income taxes.

    But the momentum of the lengthy hearing shifted when Peace offered a parade of sometimes emotional witnesses to buttress his arguments that the Campo case is part of a nationwide strat6gy by large solid-waste companies to use Indian sovereignty as a way around strict state and local standards for hazardous-waste sites and garbage dumps.

    He asserted that the state has a legitimate interest to make sure dumps on Indian lands don't endanger other Californians living nearby and added that offering tribes less than equal environmental protection than their non-Indian neighbors would be treating American Indians as "second-class citizens."

    To demonstrate the danger, Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Nixon testified that he is conducting a criminal investigation into allegations that an unregulated hazardous-waste dump on an Indian reservation is leaching lead into the soil and water. The federal Bureau of Indian Aff ised to perform an environmental study of the dump, but never got around to it, he said.

    "We have looked at an area on an Indian reservation that is highly environmentally sensitive," Nixon said, declining to name the tribe. "It is adjacent to a flood channel, it is in an overflow area. It is upgradient to several dairy farmers and upwind to several produce farms.

    "The urgency involved right now is that the lead, which is highly hazardous waste, will percolate through the land into the ground water, and the ground water will flow through the dairies and feed off into well water," Nixon said. ". . . The effects of this can be devastating."

    Residents of Boulevard, in southeast San Diego County, echoed those concerns, arguing that the dump now proposed by the Campo Indians would be next to their ground-water supply. Although the tribe has promised to take no hazardous materials into the dump, household toxins and cleaners are routinely thrown away and pose a threat to health, the residents said.

    The most poignant moments came when 70-year-old Catherine Saubel, a Cahuilla Indian from the San Diego-area Los Coyotes reservation, said the bill is necessary to "stop the exploitation" of her tribe, which is also entertaining the idea of leasing its land for a dump.

    "They are told by their so-called leaders to accept controversial enterprises such as landfills by waving dollar bills in front of their eyes," said Saubel, her testimony creating a hush in the hearing room. "When it is too late, the Indians will realize what they gave up: the land they valued so much before the clean water, the unpolluted water, even facing the possibility of themselves and their children becoming sick from the fumes of the landfill."

    The often acerbic Torres seemed particularly touched by Saubells comments. Saubel told him that her people had occupied the land "since time immemorial."  After she was identified as an Indian historian and writer, he requested a copy of her volume on Indian use of plants for medicinal purposes.

    Opponents of the Peace bill, including representatives of the Campo tribe, tried using logic and legal precedent to kill the bill.

    They argued that the San Diego County Indians are working hard to make sure they meet or exceed state environmental standards for the proposed 600-acre dump. They are negotiating contracts to hire county health and air-pollution authorities to perform spot inspections and review reports from the landfill, which will be operated by a private company.

    But they warned that the will be forced to sue if the Legislature passes the bill. The legal challenge -- which Peace expects -- would go to the U.S. Supreme Court and result in a ruling for the state's 117 Indian tribes living on reservations and smaller rancherias, they contended.

    Despite the legal arguments, the senators voted 5 to 1 to pass the bill, which now goes to the full Senate for consideration. After the hearing, Peace was exultant about the decision.

    "I never had a committee hearing like this in the eight years I've been here, he said. "Real people came up here and turned this committee around."

    Kevin Gover, attorney for the Campo Indians, said afterward that he expected the committee to vote for the bill all along.

    It's clear that the prospect of losing a lawsuit doesn't deter anyone here," said Gover, himself a Pawnee Indian from Albuquerque, N.M. "This is tough politics for anyone to vote against more regulation of hazardous waste.

    "We're in the ultimate political forum, and it is going to be tough for us to win here," he said. "But, in a legal forum, with judges that are honor-bound and legally bound to apply the law, we're going to win. They're just costing us money, and, in the long run, it's going to cost the state a lot of money."

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Copyright 1990 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
July 6, 1990, Friday, San Diego County Edition
SECTION: Metro; Part B; Page 1; Column 2; Metro Desk