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Alaska considering appeal after judge dismisses lawsuit over contaminated lands

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(The Center Square) – Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said his office is evaluating a lawsuit over who is responsible for cleaning up contamination on Alaska Native lands after a judge dismissed the case filed by the state.

The state said directives issued by Congress in 1995 and again in 2014 meant the Department of Interior should remove contaminants on 1,200 sites ceded to the state in 1971 through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, also known as ANCSA.

After a lengthy battle, the state sued the DOI in July 2022.

U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland dismissed the case this week, saying Alaska did not meet the burden of proof of whether the DOI is responsible.

“…Neither the 1995 and 2014 Directives nor the 1998 and 2016 reports required any action on the part of defendants other than the providing of information,” Holland said in his ruling. “Defendants were under no directive to undertake remediation of contaminated lands, nor to implement a plan for such remediation. The directives did not express, and were never intended, to effect a remedy for the injuries of which plaintiffs complain.”

State officials said in a news release the ruling allows the DOI to ditch its responsibility.

“The dismissal of this case is a maddening excuse for the federal government to continue circumventing its responsibility,” said Alaska Gov. 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.”

The Department of Environmental Conservation is advancing the cleanup, according to the news release.

“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,” said DEC Commissioner Jason Brune. “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.”

Taylor said the state will look at other options.

“The State pursued a class-action style Administrative Procedure Act 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,” Taylor said. “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.”

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