State loses lawsuit over contaminated lands given to Native corporations
July 26, 2023
A federal judge on July 18 dismissed a year-old lawsuit by the state against the federal government over liability for contaminated land given to Alaska Native corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
No Alaska Native corporations or Native groups joined the lawsuit, and in an order published July 18, Judge Hezekiah Russel Holland found multiple problems with the state’s arguments, ultimately ruling that they should be dismissed.
The state had argued that three prior acts of Congress required the Department of the Interior to deal with contaminated sites, formerly owned by the federal government, that were given to Native corporations.
Attorneys representing the Department of the Interior disagreed, saying those laws only required the federal government to identify contaminated sites and come up with plans for cleaning them up.
Holland agreed with the federal attorneys’ arguments, concluding, “Defendants were under no directive to undertake remediation of contaminated lands, nor to implement a plan for such remediation.”
The dispute centers on dump sites, fuel depots and other pollution on land the federal government transferred to Native corporations over the years since the 1971 law.
“There were well over 1,000 contaminated sites that were conveyed, as part of the 44 million-acre settlement for dealing with Indigenous land claims,” said Jason Brune, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, in an interview with Alaska public radio. “They were given damaged goods.”
In a written statement, state Attorney General Treg Taylor said the state is considering an appeal.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to distribute $20 million in grants intended to clean up contaminated Native corporation-owned sites. The estimated cost to clean all the sites is in the tens of billions of dollars.
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