Hog Heaven?

Members of South Dakota's Rosebud Sioux tribe don't like the smell of their latest economic development project.

There is no word for "pig" in Lakota, the ancient language of the people who live on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota; the closest is kukuse, which means "large stinking animal." Yet over the past year, hogs have come to outnumber tribal members by more than 2-to-1. The project that brought them to this remote tribal territory is the focus of a multimillion-dollar battle that pits tribal members against one another and has drawn the scrutiny of federal agencies and the courts.

At issue is a plan by North Dakota-based Bell Farming Group to build the country's third-largest hog farm, a complex that could raise nearly 1 million hogs each year in the confines of more than 200 steel-roofed barns. The first installation, 24 barns housing almost 50,000 animals, has been in operation since mid-1999; Bell Group managing partner Rich Bell promises that when completed, the project will create more than 200 jobs on the reservation, a tempting incentive to a community where unemployment stands at 85 percent. He has also offered the tribe 25 percent of the plant's profits and an option to buy the operation in 15 years. Bell says he chose the Rosebud site as "an opportunity to help the Indian people."

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But Oleta Mednansky, a tribal member and land appraiser, says the tribe doesn't need Bell's kind of help. In her view, the hog project is merely another attempt to dump a high-polluting industry on Indian land. According to an assessment conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the facility would require nearly 1.7 million gallons of water from the nearby Ogallala Aquifer daily; in addition, the hogs would generate about three times as much fecal waste as the entire human population of South Dakota. Mednansky says she recalls one public meeting at which Bell was asked why he chose the reservation. "He said, 'There are no people here.' Were we ever surprised. 'What are we?' I said."

Bell could not build his plant anywhere else in South Dakota: An amendment to the state constitution, passed a few months after he made his pitch to Rosebud in 1998, prohibits large-scale corporate farms. The law does not apply to Rosebud because the reservation is a sovereign entity.

Rosebud's sparse population and sovereign status have long made the reservation attractive for controversial industries. In the 1990s, Mednansky and other activists successfully fought a proposed chicken factory and a Connecticut company's 6,000-acre landfill plan. In those cases, the tribe was largely united against the outsiders. But Bell Farms was another matter: In 1998, the tribal council -- the elected body that governs the reservation -- signed up as a partner in the hog operation. "Anyone against Bell was considered the enemy of the tribe," recalls Mednansky, who along with tribal member Eva Iyotte and a neighboring rancher has formed an advocacy group called Concerned Rosebud Area Citizens. "We had doors slammed in our face in supposedly public meetings we tried to attend. It was like we didn't exist."

But opposition on the reservation grew after the first phase of the project was built; in the fall of 1999, tribal voters ousted most of the council members who had supported Bell. A majority of the council now opposes the hog farm, and the tribe has joined a lawsuit to stop construction of additional sites.

Tribal business manager Mike Boltz, who voted for the hog farm as a member of the council in 1998, says many tribal members didn't learn of the project's environmental implications until after the contract was signed. "The tribal council should have done more in terms of publicizing the pollution consequences of a large hog operation," he says now. "Hog-farm pollution makes people afraid. Scares me too. Pig poop is pretty deadly."

Factory-style pork production has become increasingly controversial nationwide. According to a report published last year by a Minneapolis-based advocacy group, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, large operations are typically flanked by lagoons of liquid manure that contain about 400 volatile organic compounds (including hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and methane), as well as pesticides and potentially disease-causing microbes. An EPA study last year identified concentrations of manure as ranking "among the greatest threats to our nation's waters and drinking water supplies."

In recent years a number of communities have banned large hog facilities, and states including North Dakota and Nebraska have enacted or strengthened restrictions on corporate farming. Agribusiness, in turn, has sought out ever more remote locations; the institute's report found that companies often locate large-scale farming operations in poor communities and on reservations. The document cited the Rosebud venture as an example of "pollution shopping."

The fate of Bell's project now hinges on the question of whether the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs erred in its environmental evaluation of the proposal. In a letter to the EPA, the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources said it had "significant concerns" about the BIA's assessment. At the time of the review, the document noted, Bell Farms had not produced a long-term plan for cleaning up the proposed facility's 600 acres of manure lagoons. A separate EPA analysis raised concerns about groundwater hazards; it also pointed out that the BIA had failed to address odor, which the agency calls "the most widespread and controversial environmental effect caused by pork facilities."

In November 1998, the national Humane Farming Association, an animal welfare organization, along with Concerned Rosebud Area Citizens and other South Dakota groups, filed suit against the BIA. A few months later, the bureau conceded that it had erred and voided Bell's lease pending an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement. In turn, Bell and the tribal council (then still dominated by his allies) sued the BIA and the activists for illegally interfering with their business. In February 1999, U.S. District Judge Charles Kornmann issued a permanent injunction ordering construction of the project to continue. That case is currently under appeal.

For now, Bell says he plans to proceed with construction of another 24 barns this spring; the rest of the project is on hold until the new environmental analysis is complete. The company, he says, has been invited to three more reservations (according to news reports, two tribes -- the Santee Sioux and Winnebago, both in Nebraska -- have rejected Bell's pitch). He predicts that opposition on Rosebud will fade eventually: "They are learning to appreciate what we are doing for the community."

In November, Bell presented the tribal council with its first profit-sharing check from the existing hog facility. He says he can't recall the amount, but "it sure wasn't a poke in the eye." The council turned it down.

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