California tribe files lawsuit to protect ancient maze

By Noaki Schwartz
Los Angeles, California (AP) March 2011

A Native American tribe has filed a lawsuit against a California agency over a groundwater cleanup plan near Needles, claiming it is harming an ancient maze that members believe is critical for spirits to get to the afterlife.

The lawsuit filed in Sacramento last week is part of a years-long dispute between the Fort Mojave Indian tribe, the Department of Toxic Substances Control and Pacific Gas & Electric. The utility is named as a real party of interest in this latest suit.

The tribe filed its original lawsuit in 2005 to protect the Topock Maze and a year later entered into a settlement agreement with the state agency and utility. As part of the agreement, the utility and state agency apologized for desecrating the sacred site and pledged to remove a $15 million water treatment plant as soon as another could be built. In exchange, the 1,200 member tribe agreed to drop the suit.

Attorneys for the tribe say the agency is in violation of the settlement agreement. The lawsuit is asking for the agency to remove the plant or justify why it must remain and to revise the cleanup plan’s environmental impact report to take into consideration the tribe’s concerns. The tribe is also asking for the agency to provide mitigation measures for the potential harm that the cleanup could cause.

“Instead of the polluter paying for the damage, it’ll end up being the tribe’s religious practices and cultural values that take the hit and that’s not right,” said attorney Courtney Ann Coyle. “PG&E and DTSC can do better.”

Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the state toxics agency, said they do not comment on ongoing litigation.

The maze, which is a pattern of pebble berms and furrows forms a series of lines that tribal ancestors are believed to have used as a place of purification or a pathway for their spirits to reach the afterlife. The site which is located near Needles, about four hours east of Los Angeles, is believed to be hundreds of years old and is on the National Registry of Historic Places. Much of it has been destroyed by development but about a third of it remains.

The water treatment plant began operations in July 2005 and was built to clean groundwater under a natural gas compressor station that had been contaminated with cancer-causing hexavalent chromium. PG&E had dumped an estimated 198 million gallons of contaminated water into the ground from 1951 to 1969.

State officials were concerned that the contaminated groundwater could eventually make its way to the Colorado River and the drinking water supply for millions of people in Southern California and Arizona.

PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said their goal is to continue to work with the tribe towards a solution.

“Certainly we do regret our historical operations that caused the chromium 6 contamination in the Topock area and that’s why we’re committed to remediating the area and cleaning it up,” he said.