MELLETTE COUNTY, S.D. - In this vast, largely empty sea of rolling prairie grass, where little is shiny and new, the sun mirroring off the galvanized silver roof panels of 24 enormous, brand-new hog barns is a remarkable sight.
the start of the largest-ever development on the Rosebud Sioux
Reservation. North Dakota-based Bell Farms plans to build 232 barns
to house 869,000 market hogs a year, and the company has promised
the tribe more than 200 jobs, 25 percent of the facility's profits
and an option to buy the entire operation in the
The jobs and profits might be a windfall
for tribal members, who live in the poorest county in South Dakota
(HCN, 6/21/99). Since only about 1,000 of the 24,000 resident
tribal members have jobs, former tribal president Norman Wilson
says the hog barns look like a long-sought
"I want to put the head of the
family back to work and providing for his family," says Wilson.
"For the lack of being needed, the head of the family has turned to
alcohol, probably, and the once-proud warrior that they were is no
Many tribal members thought the
hog farm might solve these troubles, and support for the project
was widespread at first. But critics on and off the reservation
argued that the $105 million mega-farm was rushed through the
political process with little regard for environmental laws, and
opposition began to grow. The farm's detractors showed their
strength in the most recent tribal election, when hog-farm critic
William Kindle was elected as president, and many farm supporters
on the tribal council were voted out of office. On the Rosebud
Reservation, the political winds may have started to
Hog waste is the big concern. Bell Farms
plans to build nearly 600 acres of waste "digesters' and open-air
evaporation ponds at the Rosebud facility. That's a surface area
large enough for a 1,200-home subdivision. If built to capacity,
the facility could generate roughly twice as much biological waste
as South Dakota's entire human
Decomposing waste can produce
terrible odors and dangerous gases, and even though only a small
fraction of the planned number of hogs are now on site, neighbors
already complain about the smell.
worry about the effects of any waste spills on the White River,
less than five miles away and downhill from the hog facility. Many
Anglo ranchers who lease nearby reservation land fear that hog
waste would contaminate the shallow groundwater wells used to water
Backers of the facility say there is
nothing to worry about. Bell Farms, which refused to comment for
this story, says odor from the facility will be minimal and that
the barns and lined waste lagoons would be built on top of a thick,
impermeable shale deposit that will protect groundwater. The
company says the waste will be disposed of "appropriately," but has
not yet produced a specific plan.
Sioux Tribe will be primarily responsible for monitoring the
company's impact on the environment, and former president Wilson
had planned to set up a pollution-monitoring
Because the reservation is a sovereign
entity, the state of South Dakota has no jurisdiction there, and
federal oversight is limited. The Bureau of Indian Affairs could
have required an environmental impact statement, but it called for
a less stringent environmental assessment instead. The Bureau's
review found that the hog farm would have "no significant impact"
on the environment.
The agency's approval brought
on a lawsuit from a coalition of tribal members and environmental
groups, including Concerned Rosebud Area Citizens, the Prairie
Hills Audubon Society, and the South Dakota Peace and Justice
Center. The Bureau then reversed itself and ordered an
environmental impact statement, only to find itself faced with a
countersuit from Bell Farms and the tribe. The case is still
pending in federal appeals court. There hasn't been any new
construction on the site since the
Environmental Protection Agency, which sharply criticized the
Bureau of Indian Affairs' environmental assessment review as
"inadequate," has since worked closely with the tribe and Bell
Farms on the hog facility proposal.
"It isn't our
job to stop these things," says Kerrigan Clough, assistant regional
administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency in Denver.
"It's our job to work with the government and make sure they're
done correctly, so that they get both values - the economic
development and the environmental protection."
After its consultation with the tribe and the
company, the EPA concluded that the project was "more
environmentally protective" than the original review had described.
The agency has now approved the construction of 72 hog barns and
three 55-acre evaporation ponds and waste digesters, but has not
yet examined plans for the additional 160 barns and 10 waste
Clough is confident that if the entire
facility is built to the same specifications as the portion already
constructed, it won't leak or otherwise discharge waste. The Sierra
Club, which recently joined other environmental groups in
opposition to the hog farm, doesn't agree.
think the (Environmental Protection Agency) is flatly wrong and
we're prepared to contest that in a litigious manner," said Ken
Midkiff, coordinator of the Sierra Club's national clean water
Midkiff is outraged that the agency is
not requiring the facility to obtain a waste-discharge permit under
the federal Clean Water Act. He believes that if the Rosebud hog
venture proceeds without a discharge permit, the project will
encourage further mega-farm development in the arid
"The fact is, these facilities will
discharge," said Midkiff. "You cannot operate a facility of that
size without accidents. It just goes without saying."
In the meantime, tribal opponents of the hog
facility hope they've found an ally in Kindle, the new president,
and in many of the 15 new members of the 20-seat tribal council who
spoke against the hog farm during the election
Though poverty remains a dire problem
on the reservation, some still say the hog farm isn't the answer to
"Economic development isn't worth
that much, to affect the land forever, and to ruin an area such as
the Rosebud reservation, just for a few dollars and a few jobs,"
said tribal member Richard Mednansky, a rancher, hunting guide and
activist. "It ain't worth it."
Eric Whitney works for
the High Plains News Service in Billings,
You can contact
* Bell Farms,
* Rosebud Sioux Tribe,
* Bureau of Indian Affairs,
* Environmental Protection Agency,
Denver, Colo., 800/227-8917;
* Oleta Mednansky,
Concerned Rosebud Area Citizens, 605/259-3488;
Sierra Club, Clean Water Campaign, 573/815-9250.