September 7, 2013
A company hauling human waste from Spokane into Idaho as fertilizer has sparked a legal fight with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
Gobers Pumping and Repair, with business partner St. Isidore Farms, will have to prove that injecting 54,000 gallons of sewage from septic tanks and portable toilets into a 150-acre patch of privately owned farmland just inside the reservation boundary near Plummer poses no health risk.
The case has prompted a visceral reaction from tribal leadership and pits expert witnesses testifying to the safety of the interstate sludge against worried hunters and anglers.
“It makes me sick just thinking about it,” said Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council.
The tribe filed suit against the two companies in its own tribal courts earlier this year seeking to ban the delivery of waste onto St. Isidore property. While the farm’s property lies outside tribe-owned lands, it is on the reservation, the tribe contended, and the injection process was feared to pose a health risk to grazing animals near the site hunted by tribal members.
In March, the tribal council passed a resolution aimed at forcing the fertilization process off reservation lands by limiting solid waste disposal to council-approved locations.
St. Isidore and Gobers took the dispute to U.S. District Court and used testimony from Tom Hess, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Idaho.
“The land treatment is … one of the main ways they treat septage,” Hess said, referring to the semisolid waste that is pumped from residential retention tanks. The process is particularly common on the East Coast, he said.
Hess visited the St. Isidore site in June, gathering soil samples and testing for the presence of disease-causing bacteria in the soil. He determined the site “poses neither threat nor harm to the health and welfare of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe or its members,” according to court records.
Scott Fields, Water Resource Program administrator for the tribe, disagreed.
After reviewing the St. Isidore application approved by the Department of Environmental Quality, Fields expressed concern that the waste posed “a risk to the water quality of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians’ Reservation.”
Several tribal members also offered declarations expressing concern about the animals grazing nearby.
The injection process shoots the sewage into the ground about eight inches beneath the surface, said Gregg Smith, lead counsel for St. Isidore and Gobers. Hess also concluded the sewage posed no risk to wildlife.
Returning the case to the tribal court to settle the health risk, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge said the question of whether a threat exists “must be analyzed objectively based on all the facts available.”
Smith called the ruling “frustrating,” disputing many of the claims made by the tribe in response to the ruling. A determination has not yet been made whether to pursue an appeal in federal court or take the argument back to the tribal court in Plummer.