Lawsuit against Highway 55 reconstruction dismissed

Max Rust

A federal judge on Friday dismissed claims the Highway 55 reroute construction project violates seven environmental and historical preservation laws.
Members of the Mendota Mdewakanton community, a group of Dakota people, filed lawsuits against the Minnesota and U.S. departments of transportation in both federal and state courts in December 1998. Community members are concerned that land being bulldozed and paved for the reroute contains artifacts of burial grounds once used by their ancestors.
A 16-month occupation protest to stop construction crews from demolishing four trees considered sacred by Mendota Mdewakanton members ended in December when state troopers raided an encampment, arresting 33 people.
The federal lawsuit claimed the project violates statutes, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. In his ruling, Judge James Rosenbaum wrote the plaintiffs failed to “show the existence of unresolved questions of material fact,” and “as a result, there is no need for a trial.”
Rosenbaum also stated that the plaintiffs had six years following an original 1985 environmental-impact statement to raise the concerns they raised in 1998.
Larry Leventhal, the lawyer who filed the suit for the plaintiffs, contended the legitimacy of Rosenbaum’s statement since the project’s plans have changed since construction began in 1988.
“There’s a flaw in the whole concept that people who have problems today with state and federal actions based on what is being proposed to do tomorrow are being bound by what some agency said 15 years ago. It’s rather absurd,” Leventhal said.
Leventhal will discuss with the plaintiffs whether to appeal the decision, but said he worries the transportation department would hurry its construction in order to moot the appeal, as it did with the federal lawsuit.
“The week before the arguments were being presented in U.S. District Court, they sawed down the four sacred trees,” he said. “I think that was with the knowledge that this was going to be argued in court six days hence from that day.”
Jim Anderson, the cultural chairman of the Mendota Mdewakanton community, said no one was really surprised by the decision. He said the community is now focusing its concerns on protecting Coldwater Spring, which is in the path of the project, and on ensuring construction crews monitor for artifacts while they work.
“What (the transportation department) is doing is wrong,” Anderson said. “Legally it’s OK, but morally and ethically, what they’re doing is the wrong thing. Morals and ethics don’t usually get involved in politics anymore.”

Max Rust covers University communities and agriculture and welcomes comments at [email protected]