Tribe Wants to Enforce Rules Over Ag Chemicals

By Art Hovey, Lincoln Journal Star
July 12,2002

The Winnebago Tribe wants to weigh in as an enforcer of federal rules for agricultural chemical use on its Thurston County reservation.

Tribal Chairman John Blackhawk said the tribe has asked for administrative clearance from the Environmental Protection Agency because it can do a better job of policing such health threats as chemical spills and chemicals that drift off weed and insect targets than the EPA or the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

Blackhawk credited EPA for “a pretty good job” and said its troubleshooters “respond in two or three days or a bit longer. What we propose is to respond in one day or in hours.”

But the state’s largest farm organization is not excited about the prospect of the Winnebago becoming the first tribe in the region to regulate farm chemical use.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation and the Nebraska Agri-Business Association, an advocacy group for the state’s ag-chemical dealers, expressed their “deep concern” in letters to U.S. Sens. Ben Nelson and Chuck Hagel.

Nelson’s staff is scheduled to meet on that and other environmental matters today with EPA officials in Kansas City, Kan.

The main focus of Winnebago and Farm Bureau attention is the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, known as FIFRA.

The EPA has delegated most of the regulative responsibility for FIFRA to the state Department of Agriculture.

The regulated group includes those who sell and use chemicals meant to control infestations of corn rootworms, musk thistles and a host of other crop and pasture pests.

Farm Bureau President Bryce Neidig of Madison said farmers own 70 percent of the land on the reservation. Neidig claimed the tribe is intent on telling them “where they can plant, what they can plant, what chemicals they can use.”

He called the situation “a real powder keg and a spark will set off a fuse and we will have a real problem.”

Blackhawk said it shouldn’t matter that much of the reservation land is owned by farmers without tribal connections. What should matter is that there is a need for more enforcement within reservation boundaries and that the tribe can do a better job.

“We’re not doing it to be first or second or anything. We do it because we think, we know we can do a better program.”

Blackhawk also said the tribe has alerted the County Board to its plans, is willing to put farmers on an advisory board, will make sure its own inspectors are thoroughly trained and will not rush into regulative mode.

But he said it stands to reason that a tribe with responsibility for less than one county can do a better job that a state or federal inspector covering 20 or 30 counties. He also said some chemical users “are being abusive” of FIFRA rules.

Jane Kloeckner, an attorney at the EPA regional office in Kansas City, said any tribal role in FIFRA enforcement must meet the standards of “reasonableness and sound science” and must stay away from “arbitrary and capricious whim.”

The tribe is working from a timetable of six months to a year, but Luetta Flournoy, chief of the EPA pesticide branch in Kansas City, said these things take time.

“We are aware that there is a lot of concern among many entities,” said Flournoy, “including the Nebraska Farm Bureau, including many nontribal members in Thurston County.”

The future of a casino on the Santee Sioux reservation is still in doubt following last November’s election. Outgoing Governor Ben Nelson steadfastly maintained that the casino was operating illegally and he was sued by the tribe for failing to negotiate a gaming compact. Governor-elect Mike Johans apparently feels the same way as Nelson. The casino has operated almost three years without benefit of a state-tribal compact, but federal authorities have yet to move to shut it down. The tribal chairman claims the state’s position is “economic racism.