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Federal Government Evades Responsibility for Cleaning up Alaska Native Lands

Jul 18, 2023

Today, Federal District Court Judge Holland dismissed the State of Alaska and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)’s case against the United States for the Department of Interior (DOI)’s failure to clean up Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) contaminated lands.

“The dismissal of this case is a maddening excuse for the federal government to continue circumventing its responsibility,” said Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy. “Instead of looking for loopholes, DOI should focus on the need for action and justice for Alaska Natives and ANCSA contaminated lands; the State of Alaska will continue to do just that.”

In dismissing this lawsuit, the Judge decided that the State had not adequately demonstrated that it was directly injured by the federal government’s actions, or rather inaction. Additionally, the motion to dismiss postulates that Congress never required DOI to take any action, only to draw up reports and a remediation plan for Congress.

“Interior Secretary Haaland’s double standard ensures that Alaska Natives’ contaminated lands will remain contaminated,” said DEC Commissioner Jason Brune. “While the State of Alaska recognizes that responsible parties should clean up their messes, it’s noted that the Department of Justice, Bureau of Land Management, and DOI don’t hold themselves to that same standard.  Apparently, the Biden administration’s and Secretary Haaland’s focus on addressing longstanding environmental justice for indigenous peoples extends to everywhere in the United States except for Alaska.”

Congress was very clear in its 2014 direction to DOI to provide “a detailed plan on how the [DOI] intends to complete cleanup of each contaminated site.”  The State cannot imagine clearer language but calls on Congress to provide specific guidance to federal agencies, and funding at a rate that will solve this problem in our lifetimes.

“The Department of Law is evaluating the order closely for purposes of appeal,” said Attorney General Treg Taylor. “The State pursued a class-action style Administrative Procedure Act (APA) claim over a site-by-site effort to provide the court with a practical and efficient avenue to address all sites at once and to give Alaskans a remedy to a languishing problem on Native lands. The extensive contamination on many sites transferred under ANCSA certainly lends to other legal avenues for relief, and Alaska will continue to pursue justice on behalf of Alaska Natives.”

Last year, the State filed a complaint to compel the federal government to take responsibility for and address almost 1,200 contaminated sites that it conveyed to Alaska Natives beginning some 50 years ago as part of the land conveyances under ANCSA. Despite the federal government’s inaction, DEC continues to work to advance the cleanup of these contaminated lands.

In 1971, ANCSA was enacted to address claims by Native Americans that they rightfully owned lands claimed by the United States, conveying 44 million acres of land to regional and village corporations. Unfortunately, the selection and transfer-of-ownership process did not include screening for and addressing environmental contaminants. Almost 1,200 sites have been identified by the Bureau of Land Management as being contaminated at the time of conveyance.