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Blue Legs v. Bureau of Indian Affairs

Citation: 19 ELR 20717
No. Nos. 87-5433, -5434, 867 F.2d 1094/29 ERC 1710/(8th Cir., 02/09/1989) Aff'd

The court holds that an Indian tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian Health Service share responsibility under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) for cleaning up solid waste dumps on the Indian reservation. The court first holds that the tribe has no sovereign immunity that would bar this suit. Where Congress has clearly indicated that tribes are subject to a given law, their immunity is waived. RCRA authorizes citizen suits against "any person," where person is defined to include municipalities and municipalities are defined to include tribes. The court next holds that exhaustion of remedies in tribal court is not required before this suit can be brought in federal court. RCRA places exclusive jurisdiction in federal court for citizen suits, and RCRA's legislative history expresses a preference for prompt federal adjudication. Next, the court holds that the tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian Health Service share responsibility for bringing the dumps into compliance. In determining the tribe's share of expenses, the district court must consider the tribe's ability to pay and still provide essential services to its people. The two federal agencies are subject to court-ordered relief for RCRA violations under RCRA § 6001, even though they do not administer the dump sites. Because they collect and handle solid waste, under RCRA § 6004 they must comply with RCRA's solid waste disposal guidelines. Moreover, the Snyder Act requires the Bureau of Indian Affairs to relieve distress on Indian reservations, and where it has itself engaged in injurious conduct its duty to remedy the wrong is absolute and not limited in proportion to its contribution to the problem. Similarly, the court observes in a footnote that the Indian Health Care Improvement Act obligates the Indian Health Service to refrain from contributing to poor health conditions on the reservation. Finally, the two federal agencies have a general trust relationship with the tribe, requiring them to ensure that the dumps are cleaned up, even if they are not the only contributors to the problem.

A concurring opinion would reach the same result for the two federal agencies based on RCRA, but not based on the Snyder Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, or general trust obligations.

[The district court opinion appears at 18 ELR 20197.]

Counsel for Appellant
Marvin Amiotte
P.O. Box 1053, Pine Ridge SD 57770
(605) 867-5140

Jacques B. Gelin
Land and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2762

Counsel for Appellees
Krista H. Clark
Dakota Plains Legal Services
P.O. Box 727, Mission SD 57555
(605) 856-4444

Before HEANEY* and MAGILL, Circuit Judges, and EDWARDS,** Senior Circuit Judge.