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Indian Leader Says Government Fails to Protect Oil

May 11, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The chairman of the Southern Ute Indian tribe said Thursday that poor management by federal agencies charged with protecting Indian oil rights forced the tribe to do the job itself.

Leonard Burch told a special Senate investigating committee that his tribe of about 1,100 members in Colorado depends on oil royalties for 94 percent of its income.

By doing their own supervision of the oil companies who buy from their wells, the Southern Utes have protected their resources, he said.

″If they know you are watching, most companies are very good operators,″ said Tom Shipps, attorney for the tribe. ″We have kicked out the bad operators.″

The special unit of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs has spent the week taking testimony about allegations of theft and royalty underpayments involving oil wells owned by Indians.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, witnesses told the committee it is easy to steal from Indian wells because they are in remote locations where no one watches the purchasers draw oil.

Shipps told the committee that when it comes to oil royalties the tribe would not be in safe hands if it relied on the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service.

He compared the work of the service and the other agencies that oversee Indian oilfields - the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management - to the Bermuda Triangle, an area in the Atlantic where ships are said to mysteriously disappear.

In a press statement, the tribe called the three agencies ″disjointed″ but praised the U.S. Geological Survey for helping the tribe determine the value of some of its mineral properties.

Shipps said that while individuals within the other three agencies are committed to doing a good job, too many compromises have been made with industry.

Criticism revolved primarily around the way government audits are conducted.

Karen Anderson, accountant for the Southern Utes, said that according to two audits the tribe recently did itself, the Southern Utes are owed $600,000 more in royalties than they received.

Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., who chairs the special committee, said, ″The American Indians of this nation are losing because the government has completely failed to protect their interests.″

He said the committee could not tell the full extent of the problem.

″This is the job of the Department of the Interior and their responsibility has not been met,″ he said.

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