The Obama Administration stepped up to issue a major victory for Native peoples and environmentalists in a joint statement released Friday from the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army, reading, “Construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time. We request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”
This, of course, is in response to the now infamous Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 1,134-mile-long pipeline costing $3.7 billion intended to carry crude oil from northwestern North Dakota through both South Dakota and Iowa before reaching Illinois. The proposed project led to immediate controversy, as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed an injunction against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt construction immediately, citing cultural and environmental concerns. Unfortunately, this was to no avail.
Despite the media blackout during this historic event, hundreds arrived, not as protestors, but as “water protectors,” describing the horrific implications of a burst pipeline jeopardizing the Missouri River, a source of water for nearly 18 million people. The protectors focused particularly on Lake Oahe, the fourth largest reservoir in the United States, and a site at which the Army Corps of Engineers had constructed five dams nearly fifty years ago. The construction led to a massive relocation of indigenous peoples, destroyed over 90 percent of timber and 75 percent of wildlife on the reservations, and submerged towns that impoverished large populations of the dislocated Dakotas, who are still affected today.
Furthermore, pipelines in North Dakota do not have a great history, despite an oil boom and subsequent extraction in the region credited for the low unemployment rate in the nation as well as a per capita GDP of nearly 30% above national average. Undoubtedly, the effects of discovering shale gas reserves in conjunction with modern methods of hydraulic fracking have contributed to very real economic benefits for many people in the region. But by no means for all of them, and certainly not economically or environmentally sustainable practices.
There exists a disconcerting litany of pipeline bursts in North Dakota alone, from the Dome Pipeline rupturing and burning 1.1 million gallons of gasoline in 2001, to over 11,000 gallons of crude oil in 2008, to the 865,000 gallons of oil covering over seven acres, detected by a farmer in 2013 who smelled oil from a pipeline running under his wheat field, although cleanup efforts are currently still underway, they will not be completed for months after the burst.
These are very real concerns that threaten a public good, supplemented by large corporations waging environmental warfare for short-term profits. Despite the finite, unsustainable, and outright dangerous practices of constructing pipelines carrying dirty crude oil through and near bodies of water, a judge dismissed the injunction presented by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In a move all too familiar to a community of people having their land seized unwillingly, bulldozers cleared through sacred Sioux burial sites. On September 3rd the company hired a private security firm, armed with pepper spray, mace, weapons, and dogs. A peaceful resistance quickly escalated, as false rumors resulted in a local Morton County Sheriff citing rumors of pipe bombs, which actually turned out to be ceremonial peace pipes, a very different instrument for a very different purpose. The sheriff did not respond to further requests for comment. Nevertheless, scores were maced and others were viciously attacked and bitten by aggressive guard dogs, until they were finally driven away after a strong condemnation of these violent tactics.
The President’s joint statement is in no way a definitive or conclusive resolution to an ongoing battle between corporations and environmentalists, or between Native Americans and the federal government. But what this episode revealed was that peaceful demonstration and resilience made a difference. Thousands of Native peoples and allies spoke up, stood their ground, and were victorious to an extent. President Obama has also announced an invitation this fall– a government-to-government consultation– about how federal laws may have to be reformed in cases of constructing national infrastructure and protecting tribal rights and resources, as reported by The Atlantic. One can only hope that with the stern and persistent shutdown of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the current stalemate at the DAPL, and the president’s increasingly progressive attitudes on environmental issues, this fall meeting could be monumental for securing and upholding the rights of people who have for far too often received some of the most deplorable treatment in a country that was originally theirs.