The Army said Sunday that it will not approve an easement necessary to permit the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota, marking a monumental victory for the Native American tribes and thousands of others who have flocked in recent months to protest the oil pipeline.
“I’m happy as heck,” said Everett Iron Eyes, a retired director of natural resources for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and one of the organizers of a camp protesters set up near the pipeline site. “All our prayers have been answered.”
Officials in November had delayed the key decision, saying more discussion was necessary about the proposed crossing, given that it would pass very near the reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose leaders have repeatedly expressed fears that a spill could threaten the water supplies of its people.
“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do,” Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, said in a statement Sunday. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”
The decision averts a possible showdown on Monday, the date the Army Corps, which owns land on either side of the lake, had set for cutting off access to the protesters’ camp. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, worried about violence, had sent mediators to the area over the weekend.
The victory for the Standing Rock Sioux and its allies could be short-lived, though. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to support pipelines such as this one. And Kelcy Warren, the chief executive of the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners, has been a major contributor to the Republican Party and Trump’s campaign.
Trump, who once owned a stake worth between $500,000 and $1 million in Energy Transfer Partners, has sold the shares, his spokeswoman Hope Hicks said. At the time of his most recent disclosure statement in May, Trump owned $100,000 to $250,000 of stock in Phillips 66, which has a 25 percent stake in the Dakota Access project.
Iron Eyes said that “we shall remain vigilant regardless. We have witnessed the power of being peaceful and prayerful.”
What started as a small but fierce protest in a remote spot along the Missouri River months ago has evolved into an epic standoff involving hundreds of tribes, various celebrities and activists from around the country. It has involved heated confrontations — police have sometimes employed water cannons, pepper spray and rubber bullets — and has carried on through the swelter of summer into the snowy cold of winter. Hundreds of veterans arrived in recent days.
On Sunday, news of the Army’s decision triggered a wave of celebration and relief among those who have fought to stop the 1,170-mile-long pipeline’s progress.
A procession of tribe members and activists marched along the main dirt road at the Oceti Sakowin encampment set up by protesters. A crowd numbering in the thousands gathered around the camp’s sacred fire, the hub of activity here, as tribal elders sang prayer songs and beat drums.
Activists acknowledged that it was only one step forward in a larger fight over Native American rights.
Denise McKay, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux standing by the sacred fire Sunday afternoon, said she expects Energy Transfer Partners to push back on the decision.
“It is a temporary victory,” said McKay, 54. “We’ve got to stay put and stay united.” McKay’s daughter, Chelsea Summers, 25, chimed in, saying “everybody is still here for the long haul.”
Nearby, Bruce Gali took drags from a cigarette and watched the festivities. He made his second trip to the camp last week and said he would keep returning from his home in northeastern California until authorities left the area and the pipeline was shut down.
“Until all the razor wire comes down, until the helicopters stop flying overhead, the spotlights turn off, the drill pad is dismantled, this isn’t the end,” said Gali, a 67-year-old member of the Pitt River Tribe. “It’s not just about this pipeline.”
We “commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a statement. “With this decision we look forward to being able to return home and spend the winter with our families.”
Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the outcome was a reminder of the power of individuals to “demand environmental justice.” She said, “Today, the voices of indigenous people were heard.”
In the Dakota language, the word “oahe” signifies “a place to stand on.”
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its allies in the environmental and activist movements had said they were doing just that: using Lake Oahe in North Dakota as a place to take a stand by setting up camps and obstructing roads to block the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline.
The steel pipeline, developed and majority owned by Energy Transfer Partners, would connect the Bakken and Three Forks oil production areas in North Dakota to an existing crude oil terminal and pipeline terminus in Illinois. At 30 inches in diameter, it could transport an estimated 470,000 to 570,000 barrels of oil per day.
The company says the project, which traverses four states, is 92 percent complete overall and 99 percent complete in North Dakota.
Army officials said that the consideration of alternative routes would be best accomplished through an environmental-impact statement with full public input and analysis, a process likely to take many months.
Ordinarily, the Army Corps, which has jurisdiction over domestic petroleum pipelines, does not require a detailed environmental-impact statement but it does require environmental assessments of the impact on water crossings.
“The White House’s directive today to the Corps for further delay is just the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions by an administration which has abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency,” Energy Transfer Partners said in a statement Sunday night. The company said it remained committed to the project and would complete construction without rerouting the pipeline.
The company also said that it had complied with Army Corps requirements, including an environmental assessment rather than an environmental impact statement. “For more than three years now, Dakota Access Pipeline has done nothing but play by the rules,” the company said.
North Dakota elected officials criticized the Army Corps.
“It’s long past time that a decision is made on the easement going under Lake Oahe,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D). “This administration’s delay in taking action — after I’ve pushed the White House, Army Corps and other federal agencies for months to make a decision — means that today’s move doesn’t actually bring finality to the project. The pipeline still remains in limbo.”
Rep. Kevin Cramer (R) said Sunday’s decision “sends a very chilling signal to others who want to build infrastructure in this country,” arguing that Obama had stymied a perfectly legal pipeline project.
“I’m encouraged we will restore law and order next month when we get a President who will not thumb his nose at the rule of law,” Cramer said in a statement. “I feel badly for the Corps of Engineers because of the diligent work it did on this project, only to have their Commander-in-Chief throw them under the bus.”
Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) called Sunday’s decision a “serious mistake” that “does nothing to resolve the issue.” He said it would prolong a dangerous situation by having protesters camping out on federal land during the brutally cold winter.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, however, praised the Army’s decision.
“The thoughtful approach established by the Army today ensures that there will be an in-depth evaluation of alternative routes for the pipeline and a closer look at potential impacts,” she said Sunday. “The Army’s announcement underscores that tribal rights reserved in treaties and federal law, as well as Nation-to-Nation consultation with tribal leaders, are essential components of the analysis to be undertaken in the environmental impact statement going forward.”
During a call with reporters Monday, Jason Miller, a spokesman for President-elect Donald Trump, was asked whether the incoming administration would seek to reverse the decision.
“That’s something that we support construction of,” he said, “and we’ll review the full situation when we’re in the White House to make appropriate determination at that time.”
Derek Hawkins contributed to this report from a camp near Cannon Ball, N.D.
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