They Fought for Their Tribe—and Won

Women use the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to protect Rosebud Sioux Reservation from corporate exploitation

  • Paul Tolme
  • Dec 01, 2003
GROWING UP on the windswept plains of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, Oleta Mednansky and Eva Iyotte had little interest in either the U.S. legal system or environmental laws. But that changed when a corporate hog producer announced plans to build one of the nation's largest pig farms on their reservation. Now, following a successful five-year court battle, the women are teaching other tribes to use one of the nation's bedrock environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), to protect Native American lands from corporate exploitation.

"Eva and Oleta will be guides for other tribes, indeed for every American, about how important NEPA is in giving citizens a voice about maintaining their quality of life," says Steve Torbit, director of NWF's Tribal Lands Conservation Program.

The controversy began in early 1998, when Mednansky and Iyotte learned of an impending deal by Bell Farms, one of the nation's largest pork producers, to build a 4,000-acre facility that would raise 859,000 hogs per year. Because one hog excretes three times the amount of waste as one person, that many pigs would produce more feces and urine than the entire human population of South Dakota. The facility would use 1.6 million gallons of water per day--a scarce commodity on the reservation--to hose away wastes, which would collect in liquid manure lagoons totaling 550 acres. For the 25-year life of the Bell Farms lease, say opponents of the plan, residents would have to endure the smell, and then the reservation would be stuck with toxic lagoons.

Promised jobs and a share of the profits, the reservation's tribal council supported the plan. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the federal agency that oversees the interests of tribes, also backed the project. Iyotte and Mednansky were stunned. They decided they must take action.

After the BIA officially approved the project, the two women formed a local group called the Concerned Rosebud Area Citizens. They also studied NEPA. "If you're going to stand up and be a voice for the people, you better understand the law and you better know what you are talking about," says Iyotte. She and Mednansky soon discovered the smoking gun: The project's environmental impact had never been thoroughly studied.

Three decades old, NEPA establishes a process through which citizens can comment on proposed federal actions that affect the environment, and it firmly states that the environmental consequences of every "significant" federal project must be studied. As such, NEPA has long been a target of corporate lobbyists and some politicians.

Soon after entering office, President Bush appointed a task force to study the law--a move, many conservationists believe, that was aimed at finding ways to circumvent the environmental review process on public lands. "The administration wants quick decisions made to clear the way for extractions of natural resources on public lands, regardless of the impacts on people and wildlife," says Torbit.

Whatever the future of NEPA, the two women used it to challenge the hog farm in court. In 1998, the Concerned Rosebud Area Citizens sued BIA, arguing the agency violated the law by failing to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS). The case was a slam dunk.

"This was clearly a megaproject that required an impact statement," says Jim Dougherty, attorney for the Rosebud citizens' group and the Humane Farming Association, which funded the costly legal battle. Rather than conducting an EIS--an exacting study that can run 1,500 pages--the BIA approved the hog farm after performing an environmental assessment, a perfunctory 73-page report that failed to address crucial questions such as what would be done with the massive waste lagoons. "When the people at the Justice Department saw this, they said 'Oh my God,'" recalls Dougherty. Federal attorneys settled the case and rescinded Bell Farms' lease in early 1999. Then the dispute went into legal overdrive.

Bell Farms filed a lawsuit to overturn the settlement, and a federal judge in South Dakota sided with the company. The citizens' group then took their case to a federal appeals court and won. Bell Farms followed by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last February refused Bell Farms' appeal.

The story of the Rosebud Reservation, says Dougherty, illustrates how some corporations target poor, rural communities. "This was a classic rip-off of the Indians," he says. While a small city would be required to build a costly treatment plant to handle such large volumes of sewage, environmental regulations governing factory hog farms are much less stringent, allowing the facilities to store virtually untreated wastes in massive, and often leaky, lagoons.

Despite its Supreme Court victory, the tribe's legal problems continue. Bell Farms is now suing the tribe and BIA for damages, and the case was pending as this article went to press. Bell Farms also built the first phase of the hog project, capable of producing 96,000 pigs annually, while the South Dakota federal judge's injunction was in place against the settlement. The scaled-down hog farm continues to operate, despite a unanimous vote by the new tribal council to oust Bell. With the lawsuit, "We are looking for the right to continue to operate and confirming the validity of our lease," says Bell Farms chief executive Greg Fontaine, adding that the company no longer wants to build the full project. He contends the tribal council and BIA caused financial harm when they reversed their positions after approving the project. As for ecological concerns, Fontaine points out that no environmental violations have occurred at the existing operation, and that the company spent more than it was required to on "environmental controls" precisely because it didn't want to be perceived as exploiting the tribe.

Some reservation residents have proposed turning off the water to the hog operation. "In the summertime there is a bad smell," Mednansky says of the stench from the hog barns and waste lagoons, "but in winter there is a haze, a greasy smell that comes over the area like a fog." If she and Iyotte had not taken action, the stench would be worse.

"These ladies will be in demand in Indian Country for years to come," says Amy Amoroso, NWF's Tribal Lands program manager, who recruited the women to join a fledgling NWF program to teach other tribes about NEPA.

"We learned never to be afraid to take a stand," says Iyotte. "If we don't, the younger generations will pay."

Colorado journalist Paul Tolmé wrote about river otters in the June/July issue.

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