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Tale of a transferred transfer station: Talking trash in San Juan County, Utah

The town of Bluff, Utah, is without a transfer station to deposit trash before it is hauled to the San Juan County landfill. On Nov. 20, 2018, county commissioners voted to transfer ownership of the transfer station to the Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation, a Mormon nonprofit group.

Nobody can dispute the dollars. Or the slap at Native peoples. In a sordid history of broken treaties with tribes, this has a new twist – taking away a transfer station (or a waste dump) that the Navajo Nation and Indian Health Service had spent thousands of dollars funding in Bluff, Utah.

The San Juan County commissioners gave it away to a nonprofit foundation. Well, actually, they didn’t give it away. They sold 2 acres and thousands of dollars’ worth of fencing and concrete for $10 “and other good and valuable consideration.”

Persistence tracked down the facts. A Utah Government Records and Management Act request was filed. Are there racist implications? Is this an example of environmental injustice? You decide. The tale of a transferred transfer station begins in the early 1990s. Let’s talk a little trash.

•••

The San Juan County commissioners’ meeting minutes for March 1991 include reference to a report that the Indian Health Service sought to work with the county on solid waste disposal. By May, the county received $13,000 in funding from the Utah Community Impact Board. In June, minutes explain that because half of the county’s population was Native American, the IHS said it would cost-share on facilities with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajo Nation. A year later, the county commissioners discussed building transfer stations, and in December 1992, the minutes say: “IHS will participate in the construction of landfills and transfer stations in San Juan County based upon the Indian population in the areas.”

The Navajo Utah Commission became involved. Julie Orr with the BIA told the commission in May 1993 that five sites had been selected for transfer stations “to serve the Utah portion of the reservation.” By August, the commissioners discussed “the county’s desire to build a transfer station at Mexican Hat and Bluff.”

Most of San Juan County is either federal or tribal land, and it is illegal to empty a pickup load of trash in just any old arroyo. Clearly, waste disposal sites needed to be established. Bluff, population around 250 people, had an unregulated dump. For these and other health reasons, the Navajo Utah Commission passed resolutions supporting transfer stations in Mexican Hat and Bluff. By December 1993, County Commissioner Bill Redd urged funding from the Community Impact Board “for this worthy purpose.”

The Twin Rocks are a defining feature of Bluff, Utah. In 2018, San Juan County, Utah, commissioners transferred the transfer station in Bluff to a nonprofit group that educates youths about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A month later, in January 1994, Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah signed a memorandum of agreement for sanitation facilities in San Juan County, Utah. Ty Lewis, chairman of the San Juan County Commission, co-signed the document with its price tag of $848,750. A year later, the county passed a resolution for the sale of solid waste revenue bonds.

By October 1995, the county accepted bids of $19,522 for fencing the Bluff transfer station site, and $39,050 for a concrete pad so residents could empty their trucks and trailers into a large dumpster that could then be hauled off to the county’s main landfill at the base of White Mesa. The system worked.

•••

I carted household trash to the transfer station, paid my fee and helped fill the dumpster with garbage, construction materials and ubiquitous tumbleweeds when the county had an ongoing burn ban. I’d meet my neighbors and say hi. They helped me, and I helped them. The Navajo Nation contributed $30,000 for transfer stations in Bluff and Mexican Hat. “The transfer station served not just the town of Bluff, but also the Navajo Nation,” said Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen.

Then, on property adjacent to the transfer station, the Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation purchased land for a campsite as part of its larger goal to bring groups from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Bluff. To learn Mormon history and heritage, youths would pull handcarts and cross parts of Cedar Mesa and Comb Ridge, especially near San Juan Hill, to replicate historic hardships suffered by original members of the San Juan Mission who had been asked by the church to establish a new community in southeast Utah in 1879-80. What is often forgotten is that this was to be a mission to help Native peoples, to bring Christianity to them, as well as other aspects of American “civilization.”

As an historian, I appreciate the sentiments, but the original Hole-in-the-Rockers traveled east with teams and wagons, not handcarts. Group size for permits across Cedar Mesa is limited by the Bureau of Land Management to 12 people, yet the Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation asked for groups of up to 100. They received their provisional BLM recreational permit and then decided their campground was too small.

I was driving the road near the Bluff Transfer Station when I saw the closed sign. Unbelievably, the San Juan County commissioners voted on Nov. 20, 2018, to transfer ownership of the transfer station to the Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation.

Residents in the Bluff, Utah, area now have to travel an extra 20 to 40 miles to dispose of their trash, after the county transferred the land the old transfer station was on to a nonprofit group.

I was present when an elderly Navajo showed up with his full pickup ready to unload trash. I saw a battered couch in the truck bed, and I would have helped him toss it out, but the gate was closed. Locked. The transfer station sold after all those years and dollars invested to create sanitation facilities for Native Americans and other locals. I tried to explain in English. He spoke mainly Navajo. How could I begin to describe what had happened?

We nodded back and forth. We used hand gestures, Finally, he realized he would have to drive miles to the county landfill at White Mesa – an additional 20-plus miles when he’d probably driven 50 or 60 miles already. As he turned his truck around and slowly drove away, I told myself I needed to write about this injustice.

•••

“The town and the residents of the Navajo Nation were stunned, disappointed and angry,” Leppanen said. “For the Navajo Nation, who paid for the majority of the costs related to the construction of the Bluff Transfer Station, there was no consideration paid to them for this transfer of public property to a private foundation.”

A federal judge had previously ordered redistricting to accurately reflect Native populations in San Juan County. The new slate of commissioners were elected in early November 2018. In one of their last meetings, the previous commission voted to convey the transfer station. Immediately, there was outrage from Bluff residents and our Navajo neighbors. On Dec. 11, 2018, the Navajo Utah Commission questioned the legality of the transfer because of the intergovernmental agreement. On Jan. 4, 2019, the recently incorporated town of Bluff sent a letter to the newly elected commissioners asking for another transfer station.

Resolution No. 2019-03, passed unanimously by the San Juan County Commission, directs that “documents be compiled and research undertaken in order to re-establish a Bluff transfer station.” There had been no appraisal. There had been no bid process. The previous county commission, made up of Phil Lyman, Bruce Adams and Rebecca Benally, had simply transferred the transfer station.

“The transfer station served not just the town of Bluff, but also the Navajo Nation,” said Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen.

I have a copy of the 2019 resolution. It requires the county attorney to make a “thorough legal analysis” of the land exchange. That has not happened. The county administrator has been ordered to research other “available options” to acquire land and to “re-establish a transfer station near the city of Bluff to serve citizens residing in the southern half of the county.” That has not happened. Is it any wonder that The New York Times reports that tribal leaders express cautious optimism that the Biden administration will “address 150 years of systematic failures and breaches of treaty agreements.”

“For decades, the majority of the county commission, always from the northern half of the county, ignored the wishes of the southern half of the county,” said attorney Steve Boos. “One of the last acts of the old commission was to once again ignore the interests and comments of the communities in Bluff, White Rock and Mexican Water by closing the transfer station and forcing members of those communities to add another 20 to 40 miles of driving to dispose of their trash.”

•••

This egregious episode isn’t over. A wrong must be righted. “This transfer was a blatant disregard for the requirement that a public body has to protect and maintain its assets. To date no ‘sale price’ has been disclosed and no alternative site has been offered,” said Mayor Leppanen.

It is time for accountability, and not just talking trash.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.