Despite its pledge to meet or exceed state environmental standards, a Pittsburgh waste-management firm has negotiated a lease to build a dump on Indian land in North County that includes significantly looser environmental controls than those required under state rules.
Opponents of the project--a 500-acre landfill proposed for the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation--are worried that the company, Chambers Development, will be able to duck its environmental responsibilities because landfills situated on sovereign Indian land are exempt from all state regulation.
The Los Coyotes tribe is one of three in San Diego County that have signed formal agreements with out-of-state waste firms. Proponents of such reservation dumps say they are a perfect union in which cash-poor Indians get revenue and land-starved waste companies get acreage.
But the dumps' opponents contend that the projects are part of a cynical nationwide strategy by waste firms to use Indian sovereignty as a loophole to evade strict state environmental regulations.
In San Diego County, the Los Coyotes lease has heightened those concerns. Critics say the 41-page agreement is proof that Chambers is exploiting the economically disadvantaged tribe and endangering the safety of its members.
A copy of the lease, dated October, 1990 and recently obtained by The Times, shows that, although the Indians could take in as much as $1 million a year in revenue, they would also be required to waive their legal immunity and return all the money if Chambers were to win a judgment for breach of contract.
If the Indians change their minds about the dump, they would be forced to buy out Chambers' investment at full market value. And yet the company is free to sublease or expand its project without penalty, the document says.
But, beyond the financial arrangements, the environmental provisions Chambers has included in the lease have upset environmentalists, neighbors of the reservation and even some of the Los Coyotes tribe members themselves.
Chambers officials insist they will run an environmentally sound project.
"We will meet and exceed both the federal and state of California environmental standards, with regard to operation," said Ed Wiles, manager of Chambers corporate development. "We've said that not only in writing to the band, but to the BIA (the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs) and said it repeatedly publicly."
Yet the lease makes no such guarantees.
The lease specifies that:
* Chambers may delay the crucial task of planning for the closure of the Los Coyotes landfill. Instead of calling for a closure plan and financial commitment upfront, as required by state law, the lease allows Chambers--at its discretion--to put off those decisions until two years before it plans to close the Los Coyotes dump.
* Instead of following state guidelines that require a waste-management firm to monitor a closed landfill for 30 years to ensure there is no environmental fallout, Chambers will be required to maintain the Los Coyotes dump for just 20 years.
If the Los Coyotes dump was proposed on state land, those two points alone would keep it from being approved, said Don Dier, manager of the permitting division for the Integrated Waste Management Board, the state agency that regulates garbage dumps.
Dier said the upfront plans and financial commitment for landfill closure, for instance, are important to "guard the public."
"What if they (Chambers) goes 15 years, and they turn it over to someone else? What if they sell the project? Then Chambers is off the hook. . . .," he said.
Richard Wharton, a University of San Diego law professor who has completed a preliminary review of the lease, agreed.
"It's an unconscionable contract," he said. "If anything happens, they (the Indians) lose."
Wiles, the Chambers spokesman, said federal law would eventually hold his company liable "in perpetuity" for any environmental problems caused by the Los Coyotes landfill. He said Chambers will not leave the tribe liable for damages because federal law would hold the firm as the "probable responsible party" for any environmental problems that ensue.
Opponents say that isn't enough, because the Indians would have to file a lawsuit--and win it--before getting a penny from Chambers.
Wiles also disagreed with contentions that Chambers took advantage of the Indians.
"We certainly believe it is a lease and a contract that does provide the protection to, and fairly treats, the Indian band," he said. "It is going to generate substantial revenues to this Indian band, which presently has a very, very minimal amount of income. . . ."
But Los Coyotes tribal chairman Banning Taylor, who negotiated and signed the lease, said in an interview with The Times that he thought the document only authorized preliminary environmental testing for a landfill--testing that he says the tribe had voted to authorize.
"They told me to, and then I signed it," Taylor said. "It wasn't (a) lease."