State sues federal government over tardy cleanup payment

Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The state has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to collect $17,994.08 from the Department of Interior for costs incurred during environmental cleanups on federal land.

The state claims the Interior Department consistently ignores its bills, but officials within the department say it's a matter of interpretation of federal law.

''We have been actively involved in settlement and technical resolution of some of these issues,'' said Linda Rundell, associate state director for the Bureau of Land Management.

''The lawsuit surprised us,'' she said.

The state is not asking for a lot of money, but instead trying to avoid letting the federal government establish a pattern of not paying its bills, said Chris Kennedy, a state assistant attorney general.

The state has a responsibility to oversee the cleaning up of contamination and is due the cost associated with the activity, he said.

He said the BLM and the National Park Service has had a practice of ignoring state bills for at least two or three years.

''We can't seem to persuade them voluntarily, so we hope the court will intervene,'' Kennedy said.

The state is seeking costs incurred at six contaminated sites from the North Slope to Katmai National Monument. Four are managed by BLM and two by the park service.

The state cites three federal laws and state law as providing authority to collect expenses incurred by the Department of Environmental Conservation when its staff monitored, investigated, and oversaw contamination on federal land.

''Although the State believes that Interior has paid costs of this type in other states, it has ignored or refused to acknowledge its responsibility to do so in Alaska,'' the complaint said. ''Interior's failure to pay its bills in a responsible and businesslike manner has been, and continues to be, a tiresome waste of agency, legal, and judicial resources.''

State officials filed the suit last month with only one of the six sites mentioned, a mercury, lead and petroleum contamination of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Reserve managed by the Park Service. This month, the state amended the suit to include five other sites, including a crude oil spill in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Rundell said that BLM has to examine bills it receives to determine if charges are reasonable. She said the same federal laws cited by the state do not allow them to collect oversight money. Therefore BLM, acting as an agent of the United States, has sovereign immunity, she said.

Based on that, Rundell said, BLM didn't have to reimburse the state for its costs.

The park service sees the lawsuit as an issue about money, not one about pollution or the quality of cleanup work, said spokesman John Quinley.

''The law is unclear,'' he said. ''That's the appropriate role for the courts to fill.''

Other federal agencies, such as the military, the U.S. Forest Service and the Coast Guard pay their bills for state cleanup oversight, said Jennifer Roberts, DEC section manager for federal facilities. BLM pays other states money for oversight, as well, she added.

''It's a little hard to figure out why BLM is so difficult to deal with,'' she said.



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