Prosecutions in Indian Country: Environmental Crimes

Protecting Indian Country from Environmental Harm
by Michael Cotter, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana

Michael Cotter, U.S. Attorney for the District of MontanaIn Montana, 45 drums containing more than 1,200 gallons of waste marked “sulfuric acid,” “caustic potash” and “caustic soda beads” were hauled and disposed of 330 miles away from the perpetrator’s business – dumped on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Out of sight, out of mind.

Four hundred miles west, fecal contamination was found in a town’s water supply on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. An investigation revealed that after the primary water system operator tested and monitored the water supply for chlorine and turbidity, he consistently falsified his reports, endangering the community. The operator was prosecuted and last month pled guilty to federal charges.

These are just two examples of how the Department of Justice plays an important role in protecting the health and the environment of American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

The Attorney General’s Advisory Committee has designated July as the focus month for Indian Country. Evidence suggests that many communities in Indian Country bear a disproportionate share of risk from environmental harms. Attorney General Holder has made achieving environmental justice – where all Americans share an equal right to protection under our nation’s environmental laws – a top priority. Equally important is respect for tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction, making meaningful consultation with communities a critical step along the path to achieving environmental justice. With these principles in mind, we in the U.S. Attorney community must work towards the fulfillment of our nation’s enduring promise to Native Americans by building and sustaining healthy and safe native communities.

Santa Ana Mountains
Santa Ana Mountains, California
The United States has a special obligation to Indian Country born from the trust relationship, established historically by treaty and reaffirmed by acts of Congress and decisions of the Supreme Court. As with major violent crime, the U.S. Attorneys’ offices are often the only option available to tribes to obtain legal redress for environmental wrongs occurring in Indian Country.

But criminal enforcement is not the only tool available to the Justice Department. In a civil action brought by the Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, a processing facility overloaded a city’s wastewater treatment system with millions of gallons of industrial wastewater. At times, this caused pollution along a 22-mile-long section of the Spring River in southeast Kansas and northeast Oklahoma, affecting indigenous territory of the Shawnee Tribe of Eastern Oklahoma and killing countless fish. The case was resolved by consent decree in which the company agreed to pay $390,000 in civil penalties, a portion of which are to be available specifically to re-stock fish in the Spring River.

Quileute Reservation
Quileute Reservation, Washington

In June, the United States, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and the state of Idaho reached an agreement with the Hecla Mining Company pursuant to which the company agreed to pay $263 million to resolve historic claims by the tribe and the federal government for cleanup costs and natural resource damages from mining waste from the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex Superfund Site in northern Idaho. This not only resolves a two decade old claim by the tribe, it also fosters future cooperation on the cleanup of the site and the restoration of natural resources in the Coeur d’Alene basin.

The stewardship of our environment and natural resources must be a shared responsibility of the U.S. Attorneys and the tribal communities we serve. The examples above are just some ways the Department of Justice acts on behalf of American Indians and Alaska Natives to resolve environmental matters, and defend Native Americans from harms to their health and environment. It is a priority of the Department to ensure that environmental justice is achieved in every tribal community throughout the 55 million acres of Indian Country.