Asserting rights over the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, the Tonawanda Seneca Nation has filed a lawsuit against the federal government in U.S. District Court over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s approval of a right of way for an industrial wastewater pipeline through the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge.
The lawsuit asserts that the Nation has standing to sue because the refuge is historically and culturally interrelated with the Nation's ancestral territory, even though it is outside the boundaries of the Tonawanda Indian Reservation.
The pipeline, which received approval from both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, is intended to move wastewater from WNY STAMP in the Town of Alabama to the north.
Orleans County, despite previous approvals within its jurisdiction, has also sued to stop the pipeline.
The Genesee County Economic Development Center, developers of STAMP, are not named in the Nation's lawsuit.
An official with GCEDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Nation is claiming that the pipeline approval violates the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, as amended by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act.
The pipeline is not compatible, under terms of the law, with the purpose of the refuge, the suit claims.
The suit asserts that the Wildlife Service violated these laws granting approval for construction of the pipeline and seeks injunctive relief, which would mean stopping further construction of the forced main.
"Consultation with an Indian Nation must occur regarding sites with 'religious and cultural significance' that are off tribal lands, and federal regulations instruct agencies to consider that historic properties of religious and cultural significance are often located on ancestral or ceded lands," the suit claims.
NOTE: The lawsuit is 82 pages long. This story is a summary of key points of the suit. To read the full document, click here (pdf)
The Nation claims that a 19,000-acre area that includes the Refuge, the Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area, the John White Wildlife Management Area and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation Reservation Territory from the Tonawanda Iroquois Oak Orchard Wetlands Complex, an area the nation is claiming is important to the Senecas for cultural and historic purposes.
"This relatively undeveloped corridor protects the culturally significant plants, animals, land, and water resources that are essential to Tonawanda Seneca traditional cultural practices and beliefs," the suit states.
The suit asserts the Nation wasn't afforded its right, under Federal law, to participate in the pipeline approval process.
"The Nation retains the right to practice its culture, religion and traditional lifeways within its ancestral Territory, both inside and outside its Reservation boundaries," the suit states, adding, "Cultural resources and historic properties of importance to the Nation are located on the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, based on traditional cultural knowledge of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation and as confirmed by the Fish & Wildlife Service’s 1992 survey of the entire Refuge."
The Nation will be harmed if construction of the pipeline is allowed to continue, according to the suit.
"Construction and operation of the industrial wastewater and treated sewage pipeline through the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge will harm Nation citizens and their enjoyment of the Refuge, as well as the Nation’s cultural resources, which include both historical and archaeological resources and wildlife, plant, and water resources in their ancestral territory in Western New York."
The suit claims the wastewater treatment facility that will be connected to the pipeline will lead to noise, traffic, odors, vibrations, light, air, and water pollution, and that it will "negatively affect the Nation’s lands, waters, environment, cultural resources, and places of religious and cultural significance."
The suit claims that the Nation previously communicated its rights under the law to GCEDC in a letter in 2016:
The Nation’s sovereign right to its territory, including the natural resources of the territory, is protected by federal treaty. The Nation has federal reserved water rights attached to our territory and the STAMP project lies entirely in Seneca aboriginal land. Waters, including streams and wetlands, span the boundary between the STAMP site and the Nation. From time immemorial, our people have used and occupied the forests, streams and wetlands of the Nation’s territory, including those directly adjacent to the STAMP site. Fish, birds, deer and other wildlife pass freely through this area and many trees and plants, including medicinal plants, grow there. All of these are an integral part of the natural world that we give thanks and acknowledge every day as Haudenosaunee with the words given to us by the Peacemaker.
Previously, and primarily in response to the Orleans County lawsuit, GCEDC CEO Steve Hyde said he is not concerned about the legal challenges facing STAMP.
From The Batavian's prior coverage:
The northern route for the sewer line, he said, is the most environmentally sound option, which is why the route was recommended by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
"If you look at the reality of what we're dealing with, in that case, that particular situation, it is DEC permitted," Hyde said. "They spent three years reviewing the plans. The DEC directed us to put the flow there because it was the best place for the care of that water body versus where we were looking as an option in Genesee County. It would have been more environmentally challenging than to do it in Genesee, and that was the reason they selected that area. There was careful study by the authority that has the responsibility for maintaining and protecting our environment. And they issued the permit. And that permit is far more stringent than what the Medina Wastewater Treatment Plant is currently operating under because they're grandfathered.
"So when I look at the challenges that are before us and presented, it's procedural things, and with procedural things, there are always ways to find solutions. So I am not at all concerned about proceeding, because it's a long pathway to do all this stuff anyway. And at the end of it, by proceeding, we're going to enjoy greater economic vibrancy here in this region."
- County judge rejects Tonawanda Seneca Nation's suit against GCEDC in connection to Plug Power siting
- Settlement between Tonawanda Seneca Nation, GCEDC removes 200 acres at STAMP from possible development
- Complaints raised at planning board meeting about STAMP, Edwards Vacuum, addressed by officials
- Undeterred by legal challenges, Hyde bullish on STAMP's future