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Mountain West Tribes Score Rare Victories Against Corporate Polluters

The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed Shoshone-Bannock jurisdiction over a hazardous waste site on the tribes' reservation.
Courtesy Shoshone-Bannock Tribes
The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed Shoshone-Bannock jurisdiction over a hazardous waste site on the tribes' reservation.

Tribes in the Mountain West reached resolutions in two long standing environmental disputes this week. The victories for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and the Navajo Nation could signal a shift toward accountability for corporate polluters operating on tribal lands.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up FMC Corp. v. Shoshone-Bannock Tribes , upholding a lower court ruling in the tribes' favor. The decision ended a more than 15-year-long legal battle between the Shoshone-Bannock and a chemical company that mined phosphate and manufactured fertilizer on their southeastern Idaho reservation from 1949 until the early 2000's.

FMC Corporation is now on the hook for close to 20 million dollars in unpaid permitting fees to the tribes for hazardous waste storage. The company will also be subject to tribal regulations in its management of the waste moving forward.

"The money is one thing," said Bill Bacon, an attorney for the tribes. "But really the most important thing is the finding of jurisdiction over the FMC corporation regarding the 22 million tons of waste that they left here."

In a statement, Shoshone-Bannock Chairman Devon Boyer said the tribal government is "very pleased" with the outcome of the case, which has been making its way through federal courts since 2005.

"This decision helps all of Indian Country in efforts to protect Tribal lands and natural resources as well as the betterment of all people of southeast Idaho," Boyer wrote. "When industry enters into a voluntary relationship within tribal lands, they must comply with tribal regulations even when the EPA and/or states may have their own regulatory presence."

Additionally, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez announced on Wednesday that the tribe had reached a settlement over the 2015 Gold King Mine wastewater spill, which polluted 200 miles of river water on the reservation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. The Sunnyside Gold Corporation will pay the tribal government $10 million.

"The Gold King Mine blowout damaged entire communities and ecosystems in the Navajo Nation," Nez said in a statement. "We pledged to hold those who caused or contributed to the blowout responsible, and this settlement is just the beginning."

American Corporations have a long history of unleashing environmental pollution on tribal lands. According to Sarah Krakoff, a professor of Native American and natural resources law with the University of Colorado, they've typically evaded accountability.

"Particularly in the West, there is this history of extractive industries of coming in [to tribal lands] or coming nearby, getting what they can out of the ground and taking the profits with them and leaving the mess behind," Krakoff said.

Since the onset of the tribal self-determination era , beginning roughly in the 1970's, Krakoff said there's been a shift.

"As tribal governments have been able to be more active about asserting authority over their own lands, the rate of accountability has increased," she said. "The FMC case is a very important precedent for tribes to be able to require corporations to engage in that cleanup."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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