Environmental law violations found at scores of tribal schools run by Interior Department

Settlement details raft of risks to thousands of schoolchildren, from hazardous waste to arsenic in the water and asbestos in heating systems

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Evan Bush/ iWatch News

Children of the nation’s military personnel aren’t the only students who have reason to worry about decrepit, sometimes hazardous conditions at their schools. Hundreds of Native American children attend schools that haven’t properly disposed of hazardous waste, haven’t contained asbestos in heating systems, and whose water systems exceed the maximum allowable level for arsenic in tap water – conditions barred under federal environmental laws.

As part of a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior has agreed to pay a $234,844 civil penalty after inspectors found a raft of alleged violations of federal waste, water, air, toxics and community right-to-know laws involving 72 schools and 27 water systems on or near the lands of 60 different tribes around the country. The settlement affects 160 schools in almost every part of the country (the full list is on page 84 of this consent agreement).

The EPA discovered the violations between 2008 and 2010 while conducting inspections at 100 schools overseen by the Interior Department’s Office of Indian Affairs. Under the settlement, Interior will be required to undergo audits to check for environmental compliance at the schools, and the settlement money must be used in part to correct violations of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act.

“Children are more vulnerable to environmental exposures than adults, which is why ensuring that schools provide safe, healthy learning environments for our children, particularly in tribal communities, is a top priority,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.  Added Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for EPA’s Pacific Southwest office, “The federal government has a trust responsibility to protect human health and the environment in Indian country.”

The EPA has a special program intended to identify environmental risks on reservations. “Pollution of the air, water and land in Indian country and in other tribal areas may pose significant threats to the health and environment of members of the 564 federally-recognized Indian tribes,” the EPA states on the Web site of an enforcement initiative that specifically targets issues on tribal lands. “Pollution may seriously damage ecosystems and tribal members can face increased risk from pollution because of subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering practices.”

To be sure, schools attended by the children of the U.S. military don’t appear to have problems on the same scale or that would draw such attention from federal environmental regulators – or big penalties. But many military schools are decrepit, fail to meet the Pentagon's own standards, and have proven worrisome to parents and teachers over air and water quality issues.

As iWatch News has reported, tens of thousands of children — from Georgia to Kansas, Virginia to Washington state — attend schools on military bases that are falling apart from age and neglect, and fail to meet even the military’s own standards.

Some schools have tainted water and fouled air; others are so overcrowded teachers improvise, holding class in hallways, supply closets, and in one instance, working in a boiler room. Many of the schools are old; one school in Germany was built by the Nazis.

iWatch News reported on the problems in an investigation published here.

Details of EPA’s settlement with the Interior Department are here, and the consent agreement and final order are here.