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Proposal to Dispose of Toxic Wastes on Reservation Debated

January 12, 1986|JANNY SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

CAMPO — Tribal Chairman Ralph Goff never imagined the furies he was letting loose when he and his tribe agreed quietly to consider allowing a toxic-waste business on the Campo Indian Reservation last fall.

But word got out in this impoverished corner of southeastern San Diego County, where relations with Indians are edgy even in the best of times. The response was immediate and emotional--and, Goff would say, distinctly patronizing.

There have been testy statements from local politicians and petition drives by a neighboring community. There have been letters to the governor, calls from environmental officials and barroom rumors of hazardous wastes already cascading into creeks.

"The implication to us is: Don't even think about it," Goff said last week in the Campo tribal office, as the Santa Ana winds raced wildly across the endless chaparral outside. "But I think we have the right to explore any economic development that comes before us. . . .

"People have said we're not regulated by the state and county, that's true. And I don't have any intention of giving up any of our sovereignty at all. . . . That's one of the few things we do have here--our right to make our own decisions and destiny here."

The toxic-waste proposal--still undecided, like several others pending on reservations nationwide--represents to Goff and the Campo band of the Mission Indians a rare economic opportunity and a significant test of their right to choose. But, to neighbors and state and county officials, it represents an environmental risk that demands the most careful scrutiny. They say it raises the question of the extent to which Indians may make a decision that could affect non-Indian neighbors.

"State policy in California is to encourage tribal self-government and self-development to the extent that it's not inconsistent with the interest of the non-Indian community," said Roderick Walston, a senior deputy state attorney general specializing in Indian law.

"It's in the latter situation where the conflicts have arisen. We are sympathetic to the tribes' efforts to improve themselves economically. . . . At the same time, we have to resist the kinds of activities that impair legitimate off-reservation interests."

The Campo reservation--about 15,000 acres of inhospitable highland stretching from the Tecate Mountains south to the Mexican border--is among the poorest reservations in Southern California. It is home to about 150 Indians.

Ranching and government offer the only jobs within miles, and most of the Indians are unemployed. Families travel the dusty roads in battered station wagons. The sign on the door of the tiny general store in nearby Live Oak Springs reads, "We Quit. Going Out of Business."

"It's probably worse than the ghetto," said Lannie Deserly, an Indian who works with tribal governments. "In the barrio at least you can go three miles to your neighbor and find a job. When there are people, you have an opportunity of getting out.

"On the reservation, it's a little different. Also, they have sovereignty. They have no desire to leave their lands. That's their homeland. If they lose that, they've lost everything."

Out to this hungry territory came PCB Treatment Inc., a 3-year-old Missouri firm that disposes of oil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs, now banned because of their toxicity, were long used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment.

The company proposed that the Indians lease it 10 acres. There, it would receive transformers from across California and drain the oil into drums. Then it would truck the drums out for disposal in incinerators in Nevada and Illinois.

At full capacity, the facility would employ eight people with wages starting at $6 an hour, according to statements made by the company. It would pay $25,000 a year to lease the land, and one cent per pound of material received--an estimated $200,000.

"The advantages would be economic: There'd be jobs and the tribe would receive money," Goff explained simply. He said the tribal council has plenty of uses for the cash: "Everything we work with: Housing, social services, government operation."

He said the chief disadvantage is equally clear: "The material that's being processed. It is a toxic substance. We'd have to regulate it real close. And also, we don't know whether it would be compatible with other business ventures."

PCBs--extraordinarily persistent chemicals capable of causing cancer and damage to the liver and immune system--have been singled out for special handling under federal regulations that require that utilities gradually retire all PCB-contaminated equipment.

Spilled on the ground in significant quantities, PCB-contaminated oil can destroy ground water supplies. If it burns, it can be equally dangerous, sending dioxins and dibenzofurans, suspected of causing cancer, into the air.

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