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Federal government moves to halt oil pipeline construction near Standing Rock Sioux tribal land

An anti-pipeline protest has become a rallying point for Native Americans. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

A federal judge ruled Friday against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request for a preliminary injunction to halt construction on the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline that the tribe says endangers sacred burial grounds and could threaten its water supply from Lake Oahe, a dammed section of the Missouri river.

But in a development that stunned even the tribe’s lawyers, the decision by District Judge James E. Boasberg was effectively put on hold by a federal order to stop construction near the tribe’s reservation until the Army Corps of Engineers can revisit its previous decisions in the disputed portion.

Within minutes of Boasberg’s ruling, however, the departments of Justice, Army and Interior issued an unusual joint statement related to the disputed land. Thousands of Native Americans have camped out nearby in protest, and the showdown between tribe members and construction workers had grown increasingly tense.

“We appreciate the District Court’s opinion on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act. However, important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally, remain,” read the joint statement issued by the Justice, Army and Interior departments.

“This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects. Therefore, this fall, we will invite tribes to formal, government-to-government consultations on two questions: (1) within the existing statutory framework, what should the federal government do to better ensure meaningful tribal input into infrastructure-related reviews and decisions and the protection of tribal lands, resources, and treaty rights; and (2) should new legislation be proposed to Congress to alter that statutory framework and promote those goals.”

The fight is being waged over a 1,172-mile pipeline through four states that could transport more than  a half-million barrels of oil each day.

For tribal leaders, the government’s announcement immediately following the court’s ruling against it was a huge victory.

“Our hearts are full; this an historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and for tribes across the nation,” said Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.“Native peoples have suffered generations of broken promises and today the federal government said that national reform is needed to better ensure that tribes have a voice on infrastructure projects like this pipeline.”

A spokeswoman for Dakota Access declined to comment for this article. A collection of business organizations supporting the pipeline, the MAIN Coalition, said the government’s action halting constructionwas “deeply troubling and could have a long-lasting chilling effect on private infrastructure development in the United States.”

In July, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The complaint said that the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, could discharge materials “at multiple locations in the tribe’s ancestral lands” without proper permitting.

Tribal leaders have argued that leaks from the pipeline would impact the Missouri River, a source of water for 8,000 residents of a reservation about a mile away from where the pipeline would cross.

Boasberg had partially granted an order in the case in advance of today’s ruling.

The Army Corps of Engineers said in a filing this week that it did not oppose a motion for a temporary restraining order until Boasberg ruled. In that filing, the agency said it believed that it “fulfilled its statutory responsibilities” and felt it would win out. But the corps added that due to the confrontations stemming from the project, the restraining order would essentially be “preserving peace” until a ruling came down.

Dakota Access has said that underground oil pipelines are safe. On its website, the company says that it will take precautions to safeguard culturally or environmentally sensitive areas.

The showdown in North Dakota has also blossomed into a larger fight that has drawn thousands of Native Americans from across the country, joining to combat what they describe as mistreatment in the case.

When workers recently plowed under locations mentioned by the tribe in a court filing as being sacred or historic, tribe members tried to intercede and were stopped by private security workers, some using guard dogs and pepper spray. The resulting photos showed snarling dogs lunging at protesters; a tribal spokesman said demonstrators were bitten, while the sheriff’s department said private security guards as well as dogs were also hurt.

The protest has made headlines around the world, and while overseas this week, President Obama was questioned about the ongoing standoff by a young Malaysian woman at a town hall in Laos.

She asked what Obama could do “to ensure the protection of ancestral land and the supply of clean water, and also environmental justice is upheld?” He did not address the pipeline directly, but acknowledged that “the way that Native Americans were treated was tragic.”

Many tribal leaders say Obama has done more for Native Americans in his two terms than all of his predecessors combined. The administration has given land back to tribes and worked one-on-one with tribal governments, and it is cracking down on crime in Indian Country. “The best thing that’s happened to Indian Country has been President Obama being elected,” said Archambault II, after the president and First Lady Michelle Obama visited Standing Rock in 2014.

Obama said later that they emerged from a private conversation at a school in Cannon Ball, N.D., “shaken because some of these kids were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry. And it was heartbreaking.”