Breaking a long and bitter impasse, Indian leaders and environmentalists struck a delicate compromise Tuesday that would allow tribes to adopt state regulations for landfills and toxic dumps built on their sovereign lands.

    The compromise comes after weeks of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations and appears to end a vehement legislative feud over a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Rancho San Diego), who has been trying to force Indians around California to follow state environmental guidelines.

    Peace's measure originally required state inspection and approval for waste projects built on any of Californials 108 reservations, which now fall under looser federal environmental law.

    But Indian leaders -- led by the Campo tribe in Peace's rural San Diego County district -- vigorously opposed the bill as a violation of their sovereignty. And they vowed to file a lawsuit to overturn the measure if it were signed into law.

    Tuesday's compromise was aimed at averting a court battle. Rather than make the state standards mandatory, the bill now provides a framework for any tribe willing to sign a "cooperative agreement" that adopts stricter state standards and allows state officials to inspect future waste projects. The tribe is responsible for enforcing environmental standards and could be sued by the state for breach of contract if it fails to do so.

    The agreements also allows state regulators to take immediate action if they find an "imminent and substantial threat" to public health or the environment from any Indian landfill or toxic dump.

    Under the compromise, the state could not force Indian tribes to sign the agreement. But Peace said the state still reserves the right to "assert its authority" and sue tribes over unsanctioned projects -- a move that would effectively tie them up in court for years.

    A legislative conference committee approved the amendments late Tuesday, and all sides expect the amended bill to be forwarded to Gov. Pete Wilson for his signature.

    While they are not completely happy with Tuesday's compromise, environmentalists said working on the Peace bill had become a "major priority" for them this legislative session.

    "Making sure that hazardous waste and solid waste facilities are properly regulated on Native American lands is absolutely essential," said Corey Brown, general counsel for the Planning & Conservation League. "The Indian sovereignty issue opens up a potential gaping hole in the state's regulatory authority."

    Tuesday's compromise, Brown said, now relies on how vigilant state regulators are in enforcing future cooperative agreements with the Indians. "Protection of public health and environment will depend on how aggressive the administration is," he said.

    Environmentalists were fully behind Peace last year when he first introduced his bill, claiming that East Coast "sleaze merchants" and "renegade" waste firms were using the Indians to avoid Californials tough environmental standards.

    Although the bill had important statewide implications, it was inspired by the Campo tribels plan to build a landfill on a portion of its remote 15,480-acre reservation in rural southeast San Diego County. Tribal leaders were banking on the landfill, to be built and operated by a private company, to help ease poverty among their 115 people.

    The band solicited bids and eventually chose Mid-America Waste Systems of Ohio last September to build a landfill, recycling center and composting operation on a square mile near the Mexican border. Construction is expected to begin next year.

    At the same time, leaders at nearby La Posta Indian Reservation announced they wanted to host an 80-foot hazardous waste incinerator, and the Los Coyotes band in North County were investigating a landfill.

    Those plans touched off a storm of protest from environmentalists and neighboring ranchers, who said that Indian sovereignty provided a huge regulatory loophole for firms hoping to escape the California standards. Nearby residents feared that the Indian projects would contaminate their ground water.

    Despite strong opposition from Indians, Peace got his bill through the Legislature only to see it vetoed by former Gov. George Deukmejian in October.

    He reintroduced the bill this session but agreed to consider amendments last month at the request of Wilson Administration officials, who were lobbied heavily by Campo and other tribes.

    That development touched off negotiations between Peace, environmentalists, Campo lawyers, the state attorney generals office and officials from the newly formed California Environmental Protection Agency.

    "Peace was interested in a compromise but he had no reason to compromise until he saw we had strong support in the Administration," said Campo attorney Kevin Gover, part of the negotiating team.

    The result was Tuesday's compromise, which was finalized at 4 a.m. after an all-night negotiation session.

    "If you had asked me 48 hours ago if we thought we would get to this point, I would have said no," Peace said later Tuesday morning.

    He said a turning point in the talks came when the Indians agreed to insert language in his bill giving neighboring ranchers and residents the right to sue the state if it fails to make sure the Indians are following the cooperative agreement.

    Gover said the San Diego County tribe has always been willing to sign such a cooperative agreement with the state. "We want to have a good regulatory program and this allows us to take advantage of the expertise and experience in state agencies," he said.

    Diane Richards -- a member of Backcountry Against Dumps, a citizen group fighting the waste projects at Campo and La Posta -- said Tuesday the compromise was hardly comforting to her and other nearby residents, who are worried that their groundwater supply will become tainted.

    "I feel like the state is doing the best it can, but because this is reservation land, they have to handle it (the issue) with kid gloves," said Richards, who lives within 4 miles of both reservations. "I'm not comfortable with it."

    Richards said she was encouraged by the fact that the cooperative agreements would hold Campo and other tribes to state standards, but questioned the wisdom of leaving the Indians in charge of enforcing environmental standards.

    "It sounds like the state wimped out in the area of enforcement, unfortunately," she said. "It's like the weasel protecting the eggs in the chicken house."
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Copyright 1991 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
September 11, 1991, Wednesday, San Diego County Edition
SECTION: Part A; Page 1; Column 2; Metro Desk