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Indian Reservations Reap Deadly Legacy of WWII

Tribe seeks federal help to clean up land taken to train US bomber pilots half a century ago

Martha and Lawrence Whiting will never forget the summer morning in 1942 when US Army representatives ordered them to leave home within 48 hours.

"We were told it was our patriotic duty to give up our land," Mrs. Whiting recalled recently from her home in Kyle, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

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"They said if we didn't cooperate, then it would be our fault when the Japanese ... started invading South Dakota. I still cry every time I think about what the government did to us. They wouldn't even let us harvest the vegetables."

The Whitings and their children were among more than 125 Lakota Sioux families forced to sell their farms because the military needed a bombing range to train pilots bound for World War II.

Half a century later, the deadly legacy of that policy remains in the form of live bombs, shells, and other ammunition that still stud the land on Pine Ridge Reservation and on dozens of other reservations in the West, Alaska, and Hawaii. Attempts to deal with the ordnance have sparked a national debate over how to effectively clean up formerly used defense sites (FUDS) used in war games.

The 342,000 acres seized by the government in South Dakota's famous Badlands, which include a part of Badlands National Park, rank among the largest tracts of human-inhabited property ever taken from US citizens in support of a modern war effort.

Over the years, tons of explosives were dropped on Pine Ridge, but no one knows how much undetonated ordnance remains. Just last month, construction workers laying a foundation for a new home near here excavated a live 20 millimeter shell.

"We read all the time about the lingering dangers of live shells left behind by the Allies and Germans in the fields of France," says Emma Featherman Sam, a Lakota Sioux and director of the Badlands Bombing Range Project. "Here we have a similar safety threat in the backyard of our own country and few people know about it."

Created by the tribe in 1993 to make reservation lands safe for resettlement, the project and a multiagency task force are being heralded as a potential prototype.

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Nowhere else in the lower 48 states are Indian tribes and the federal government jointly addressing the problems caused by military exercises. What happens here will affect how and when environmental reclamation proceeds elsewhere. Their most immediate hurdle: getting funds from the 105th Congress.

Seventy tribes impacted

Ms. Sam, a recognized authority on Indian lands and military use, says more than 70 tribes have documented serious effects caused by defense department-related activities going back to World War II, including the presence of explosives, groundwater contamination, and hazardous landfills.

The Defense Department recently hired a consultant to assess and document military-related impacts on Indian lands in 13 states. Not knowing the extent of the risk inhibits development, says Sam, and is "the most serious impact among people who want to move back ... but are afraid."

The military does recognize that safety concerns exist, and the Pentagon recently appropriated $8 million to be split among 70 tribes for clean-up and reclamation on hundreds of thousands of acres.

But to put that figure in perspective, Sam points out that the Air Force estimated more than a decade ago it would cost $18 million to clean up 2,400 acres on the Badlands Bombing Range alone.

"Their commitment of funding has been woefully inadequate," she says. "It's almost as if someone has to die or get maimed before they pay serious attention, and then it will be too late."

The Air Force and the South Dakota National Guard, which used the bombing range for war games through the 1960s, initially insisted the area was completely cleared of dangerous ordnance by the early 1970s.

Ammo dumps

Tribal officials, however, regard those assertions with suspicion. While the Air Force initially claimed all the bombs were confined to a target zone, unexploded shells continue to surface dozens of miles outside the cleanup site.

In addition, the Air Force has kept 2,486 acres in the middle of the Badlands that are so heavily loaded with unexploded ordnance the area is considered too dangerous for its own personnel to clean up. And four old munitions dumps buried on tribal and private land went unmarked for years and are believed to contain hazardous material.

"[It's] miraculous that nobody has been seriously hurt," says Dell Petersen, chief of environmental restoration at Ellsworth Air Force Base, which is part of the cleanup along with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Park Service.

Will Senators help?

Tribal leaders say their pleas for help have been met with indifference from the South Dakota congressional delegation. Sam points to correspondence and progress reports sent to the office of US Sen. Tom Daschle (D) that have gone unanswered.

A spokesman for Senator Daschle says once Congress reopens the senator intends to support a grant proposal to underwrite a risk assessment and provide a framework for strategic cleanup.

Some believe the government might find that cost prohibitive. Kim Clausen, who oversees the Lakota tribal office of environmental quality, says Indian reservations have a disproportionate number of FUDS sites compared with other federal lands in the West, Hawaii, and Alaska. She believes the government has hesitated to fund a comprehensive reclamation, because it might set a precedent that could be applied to dozens of other areas at tremendous cost.

"If our project dies, then very likely the whole process of cleaning up other contaminated Indian lands also dies," she says.

The great-great-great-granddaughter of Sioux leader Sitting Bull, Ms. Clausen wrote the first federal grant proposal seeking money for a cleanup four years ago. "We as a tribe have been the most vocal, and we have the largest bombing range in the inner West," she says. "We have tried to pave a path that others can follow."

Environmental consultant Ron Cooper, who assisted Clausen in writing the benchmark tribal plan, says the tribe's cleanup program, if fully implemented, would cost a fraction of what the US Army Corps of Engineers and EPA usually spend on Superfund sites. "It's a good deal all the way around," he says. "The tribe wins, the government wins, and the taxpayers win. How often do you see that?"

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