Tribe denies trash


Editors Note: This piece is cross posted from Mother Earth Journal, where reporter Terri Hansen writes about indigenous people and the environment.

SPOKANE, Wash.—At the last minute, the Yakama Nation blocked a bid by Hawaii to ship their household garbage to a landfill that sits amid their ancestral lands in south central Washington State.

U.S. District Judge Edward F. Shea approved a temporary restraining order filed by the Yakama Nation July 29, pending a thorough environmental review and tribal consultation.

The bales of waste and rotting food were set to leave Hawaii July 30.

Photo courtesy Robert Harris, Hawaii Sierra Club.

The tribe filed lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington against the U.S. Department of Animal and Plant Inspection Service, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and APHIS Administrator Cindy Smith seeks to block the importation of the trash.

Their lawsuit alleges that USDA-APHIS, by not consulting with the tribe before they issued Seattle-based Hawaiian Waste Systems LLC permits to export hundreds of thousands of tons of municipal waste to the Roosevelt Regional Landfill, failed their obligations under federal laws and the Yakama Treaty of 1855.

The landfill is surrounded and adjoins land ceded by the Yakama to the United States in exchange for treaty rights.

“We only found out that Hawaii was getting ready to ship three weeks ago,” Yakama tribal chairman Harry Smiskin said.

The Yakama Nation couldn’t sit idly by and allow exotic waste and invasive species to destroy the Columbia River Basin and Pacific Northwest, “especially at the hands of the federal government and its for profit contractors,” Smiskin said.

Their tribal council attempted to consult with USDA-APHIS and Obama-appointed Under Secretary Edward Avalos shortly before the waste was scheduled to leave Hawaii. They guided federal officials through their traditional lands, and historic fishing, hunting, and gathering areas. “We explained our fears that Hawaiian garbage could destroy our resources and ways of life,” said Smiskin.

Regardless, Secretary Avalos advised Smiskin July 27 that the USDA planned to allow the first shipment and dumping of garbage to commence that very week. “Our efforts fell on blind eyes and deaf ears.”

Judge Shea issued the temporary order on grounds that their case was likely to succeed on the merits of their complaints; that in the absence of preliminary relief the tribe would likely to suffer irreparable harm; that the balance of equities tipped in their favor, and an injunction would be in the public interest. A preliminary injunction hearing is set for August 30.

Avalos referred questions to APHIS. APHIS-USDA spokesperson Andrea McNally responded by email, “USDA will comply with the temporary restraining order. USDA is currently reviewing the matter and will be working with the Department of Justice regarding the future litigation proceedings.”

The proposed landfill adjoins and is surrounded by historic Yakama ceremonial sacred sites, cemeteries, cairns and ancestral burial sites, village ruins, petroglyphs, pictographs, and religiously and culturally significant properties, Smiskin said. Yakama citizens have hunted, and gathered plants, roots, and berries for food and medicine around the proposed site since time immemorial. They fish along the Columbia River and other tributaries near the landfill.

Prior to 2006, federal regulations barred the shipping of Hawaiian garbage for dumping in the continental U.S. to protect against the accidental importation of invasive species.

The tribe contends the garbage could potentially introduce hundreds of invasive species, including the Mediterranean fruit fly, now eradicated from the continental United States, and the spotted winged drosophilia, which recently invaded the Pacific Northwest from California and is the focus of major efforts to contain its spread.

Environmental groups and private citizens joined the Yakama Nation in the lawsuit.

“It’s incredibly inefficient to ship garbage across the ocean, just because Honolulu isn’t being responsible for their own waste,” said Brett Vandenheuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “They don’t even recycle. Their garbage has sat over there and rotted. We don’t think the Columbia River is a good place to dump (it).”

Other plaintiffs to the suit include Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, and local citizens.

The Hawaiian garbage is currently stored in leaking bales at a site in Honolulu. Had the permits not been suspended it would have marked the first time Hawaii was allowed to import their waste to the mainland.