State might use ARP money to clean illegal dumps on Wind River Indian Reservation

RIVERTON — State officials want to use federal American Rescue Plan funding to help clean up illegal dump sites on the Wind River Indian Reservation. 

A recent inventory showed there are almost 30 illegal dump sites on the reservation, containing a total of more than 25 acre-feet of trash –– more than 30,800 cubic meters. The sites range in size, the smallest measuring .01 acre-feet off of Gas Hills Road just east of Riverton, and the largest measuring 6 acre-feet off of Left Hand Ditch Road north of Arapaho. 

“These illegal sites weren’t totally created by tribal members,” Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said in August during a meeting of the state’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations. “We know that. …The state needs to help participate to clean that mess up as well.” 

He said he proposed the idea when Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon reached out to legislators asking for suggestions about potential uses for the state’s ARP money. 

“(Gordon) said, ‘This is one-time money. What do you think we could do with this to make a legacy impact on the state of Wyoming?’” Larsen recalled. “And knowing that the tribes each would have some ARP money coming to them … my sell to the governor was, ‘Why don’t we reach out to the tribes and leverage like amounts?’” 

Emily Soli, special counsel for Gordon’s office, said the problem of illegal dump sites “continues to be a priority for the governor’s office,” and “there is broad consensus that this is an inter-jurisdictional problem, and we need an inter-jurisdictional solution to this problem.” 

She said Gordon plans to present a recommendation for use of the ARP money in December to the Wyoming Legislature, which is the “ultimate decision-maker in how these ARP dollars are invested.” 

During a tribal relations committee meeting in October, Eastern Shoshone Business Council Chair John St. Clair said the Eastern Shoshone Tribe agreed with Larsen’s proposal. 

“We haven’t obligated all of our ARP funds yet,” St. Clair said. “We would be willing to contribute an equal amount with the northern Arapaho Tribe into that initiative to clean up all of the dumps on the reservation. … We’re on board for that as long (as) the state contributes a reasonable amount that’s commensurate with our contribution.”

He added that the Environmental Protection Agency and Indian Health Service also should be involved. 

EPA Regional 8 Tribal Waste Management Coordinator Alison Ruhs said she is more focused on “the enforcement side” of the problem. 

“We don’t want these dumps to come back,” she said during the October meeting. 

The EPA has contributed funding from its General Assistance Program to help re-establish a permanent commission to address environmental issues on the Wind River Indian Reservation, and St. Clair said the tribes are in the process of appointing representatives to the committee that will re-establish that commission. 

While that work is ongoing, Ruhs said she continues to meet bi-weekly with tribal officials as they develop an integrated management plan that will help prevent continued illegal dumping on the reservation. 

St. Clair said changes are being proposed to the tribal law and order codes to more explicitly outlaw – and punish – illegal dumping, improper disposal of hazardous waste, open burning, waste accumulation, regular waste, construction waste, animal carcasses, and damage to solid waste equipment. 

The “severe civil penalties” included in the code are enforceable against non-Indians, St. Clair noted. 

“Sometimes there’s a problem with collecting your fines,” he said. “But like other governments, we do have the authority to garnish wages.” 

Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, asked whether off-reservation agencies are cooperative when presented with requests to garnish non-Indian wages. 

“We’ve seen some problems – normally with Fremont County,” St. Clair responded. “There was some, I suppose, opposition to doing that.” 

ESBC Councilman Michael Ute agreed that there was “definitely a problem at the beginning,” but he said tribal officials learned that, if they re-worded their codes to “mirror” Fremont County’s own rules, county officials were “more likely to go along with (the) fines.” 

“This was basically why we decided to draft an all-new tribal law and order code for this particular section,” he said.

EPA Regional 8 Regional Program Manager Janice Pearson said additional infrastructure – namely, more places to legally dump trash – also would help prevent continued illegal dumping on the reservation. 

A 2021 article in the Wyoming Law Review says the illegal dumping problem was exacerbated after the Fremont County Solid Waste Disposal District decided to close all of its trash collection sites within 20 miles of a major landfill – including the one at 17 Mile on the reservation. 

Ryan Ortiz, chief financial officer and self-proclaimed “spokesman for trash” for the northern Arapaho Tribe, said tribal officials are preparing to re-open the 17 Mile site “soon” at a “100 percent loss.” 

“If that runs in a deficit, the business council has allowed that to be subsidized with tribal funds,” he said. “We just had no other option but to do that.” 

The transfer stations are a “necessity,” he said – which is why so many government agencies are working together to try to support the facilities. 

Only Fremont County is “never at the table,” Ortiz said. 

The Wind River Inter-Tribal Council operates the reservation transfer stations through an agreement with the Fremont County Solid Waste Disposal District, according to the Law Review article, but Ortiz said “the county (is) never invested in this.” 

“They sit there, and in my opinion smugly, and draft contracts that are detrimental to operations … specifically to regain most of the money that they give to the tribes to operate these (transfer stations),” he said.

In 2018, the Law Review article says, Fremont County agreed to provide $1.325 million to the tribes over a period of five years to operate the transfer stations on the reservation, an amount that St. Clair said “had been sufficient” – until tipping fees began increasing at the landfill. 

“That’s kind of becoming a problem with that agreement,” St. Clair said this month. “It runs short toward the end of the funding period, just because of those high fees that are being imposed upon us.” 

Sustainability Ortiz said the solid waste system on the reservation needs to be “sustainable” in order to ensure illegal dumping does not simply resume once clean-up efforts are completed. That’s why he said Fremont County, which dictates solid waste policy locally, needs to be “part of the discussion.” 

“Make them part of the solution, to whatever extent that can be, or look at it in a whole different context and fund us separately,” Ortiz said. 

Ute agreed that the county has been “noticeably absent” during discussions about solid waste on the reservation, though he added that “it might not be entirely all their fault.” 

“It might be the tribes just kind of realizing that (the county) might not be totally open to discussing things with us,” he said, alluding to a history of strained relations between both groups. “The tribes are used to the county not being at the table. 

“So I think it’s kind of on our end, where we were just like, ‘We’re not going to include them, because they’re not going to be there anyway.’ “(But) I do think they need to be there.” 

Ute said county officials “almost have a responsibility to help us – especially once you start thinking (that) non-natives come from off the reservation, from within Fremont County, to dump their trash.” 

“Construction companies do it all the time,” Ute said. “That’s been going on for decades. So once you think about that, they do owe us for all those violations they know have been happening. … They should have (at) least some responsibility there.” 

Larsen said he would speak with the Fremont County Commission about the issue, suggesting that the CSWDD may need some tribal representation.