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The Environmental Protection Agency wants to hire more American Indians and consider changes in grant programs to improve understanding of cultural issues and better address tribal concerns, agency leaders say.
"I'm very committed to diversity and Native Americans especially are underrepresented at EPA," said Marianne Lamont Horinko, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.
Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, said he's noticed increased sensitivity by the EPA in recent years in dealing with tribe's social and cultural concerns while addressing pollution issues.
"There's more of a recognition of native people, indigenous issues and environmental issues," Wallace said.
"For us, history is more about place than it is about time. The wellness of these places is critical to our survival as a people," he said.
Jerry Pardilla, executive director of the National Tribal Environmental Council, said during a panel discussion that EPA programs often are geared toward states and don't work well for tribes.
"The requirements for matching funds to do cleanup often pose a barrier to tribes," he said.
Horinko said some states, too, are having trouble finding matching funds for EPA grants, but acknowledged, "tribes are particularly uniquely challenged."
She said the agency is interested in working with tribes to find ways to give them credit "for - for lack of a better word - hardworking, sweat equity."
"We need to find ways to quantify in-kind contributions because tribes are doing a great deal of work," she said.
"One thing we have learned is one size does not fit all. We may need some fundamental changes in the way we approach some cleanup problems," she told more than 400 tribal representatives.
President Bush has requested $200 million for next year's budget to finance clean up of brownfields, she said.
"Brownfields funds are a great opportunity for tribes," Horinko said. "Brownfields are not just office parks and new buildings. It's building new fishing habitat and building green space back into communities."
Whitman, former governor of New Jersey, told the conference on Wednesday that it is "all too apparent that EPA needs to do more" to help tribes. She said there are 1,100 open dumps in Indian country and 83 tribes are in areas with air pollution.
Wallace said Whitman has become directly involved in a number of joint projects between EPA and his tribe, including water quality projects at Lake Tahoe.
"She's been a very responsive partner and a friend of the Washoe tribe and Washoe people," he said.
Diane Regas, EPA acting assistant administrator for water who oversees tribal programs, said the agency's outreach to Native Americans is the best it's been in her 15 years there.
"Gov. Whitman has been great at bringing tribes into the actual planning process, to present early on in the process their ideas while we are deciding where to target money. That's almost unheard of," Regas said.