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Standing Rock withdraws from ongoing environmental assessment of Dakota Access Pipeline

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Tribal protestors at Sacred Stone Camp in Canon Ball, North Dakota, near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2016. Image courtesy of Joe Brusky via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has withdrawn as a cooperating agency from the U.S Federal government’s ongoing environmental assessment of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) operations, citing lack of transparency by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the pipeline operators, Energy Transfer.
  • Standing Rock tribal leaders have raised concerns about the oil spill emergency response plans made available to them and believe that Energy transfer has understated how big the potential of an oil spill might be.
  • Janet Alkire, the newly elected Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairperson, has called on the Army Corps to address the issues they have highlighted in the emergency response plans or to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline immediately to safeguard the lives of tribal members.
  • According to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, concerns raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe will be considered as it issues the draft Environmental Impact Statement and the organization would have preferred if the tribe remained involved as a cooperating agency.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has withdrawn as a cooperating agency from the U.S Federal government’s ongoing environmental assessment of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) operations.

Standing Rock attributed their decision to the lack of transparency by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who are conducting the court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the pipeline in the area, as well as Energy Transfer’s, the pipeline operator, refusal to engage with tribe. According to tribal leaders, Standing Rock’s Tribal Emergency Response Commission (TERC) has yet to see the entire copy of the pipeline’s emergency plan in case a crude oil spill occurs.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (under construction). The finished pipeline will carry up to 450,000 barrels a day of Bakken crude to a terminal near Patoka, Illinois. Image courtesy of Lars Plougmann via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

“The Corps has failed to provide the Standing Rock TERC the most recent, unredacted response plans,” states Doug Crow Ghost, Administrator of the Tribe’s Water Resources Department. “Coordination and transparency with the TERC have been non-existent.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told Mongabay that they would have preferred if the tribe remained as a cooperating agency in the EIS process and are looking forward to future comments on the upcoming EIS draft.

In 2016 and 2017, Standing Rock was among thousands of tribes and protestors that opposed the Dakota Access pipeline. After the tribe legally challenged the construction of the pipeline at Lake Oahe citing water safety, Federal District Court Judge James Boasberg ordered that a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Study be conducted. He ruled that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) required it as a result of the controversy surrounding the pipeline.

The pipeline is planned to run from North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, going through South Dakota and Iowa. While the pipeline does not pass through the Standing Rock reservation, it passes under the nearby Lake Oahe, which is the tribe’s only source of freshwater. With the potential of a negative impact, the tribe became a cooperating agency invited to assist the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to produce the new EIS for the pipeline.

Thousands gather at San Francisco Civic Center in 2016 to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota. Image courtesy of Peg Hunter via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

An emergency response to protect Lake Oahe

As a cooperating agency, Standing Rock was authorized to develop or enforce environmental standards and comment on environmental impact statements within their jurisdiction, expertise or authority.

According to the NEPA, a lead agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, has the ultimate responsibility for the content of the EIS. However, it is supposed to use the environmental analysis and recommendations of cooperating agencies to the maximum extent possible, consistent with its own responsibilities as lead agency.

If the lead agency leaves out a significant issue or ignores the advice and expertise of the cooperating agency, the EIS may be later found to be inadequate.

Although Standing Rock is not privy to Energy Transfer’s entire oil spill emergency plan, the review of the ones made available to them are deemed infeasible. According to Crow Ghost, Energy Transfer’s emergency plans for an oil spill fails to take into consideration the lake’s frequently fluctuating water levels.

Lake Oahe in South Dakota is a reservoir on the Missouri River. Image Doc Searls via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

“Lake Oahe’s elevation is 12 feet [3.6 meters] below what it was two years ago today, but the Corps continues to release water at Oahe as if it is business as usual,” said Crow Ghost.

The Corps uses the Oahe’s outlet dam tunnels as a way to control flooding in the Missouri river, resulting in fluctuating water levels in the lake.

“The prospect of an oil spill during such low water is truly scary,” Crow Ghost says. Don Holmstrom, a former Director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s Denver office, now serving as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s emergency planning consultant, notes that existing plans are inconsistent with the company’s own spill model.

“Spill response under adverse conditions such as a low Lake Oahe water level or the harsh winter environment of North Dakota, including an oil spill under ice, are seriously lacking,” he said.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the concerns made by the tribe are related to what they are still considering within the EIS – specifically on whether to issue an easement for the pipeline to cross Lake Oahe.

“As such, we have not yet reached a decision or determination,” the Army Corps of Engineers deputy director of public affairs told Mongabay by email. “We cannot take a position on the veracity of the allegation. It is something that will be considered in the process as we issue a draft EIS in the coming weeks, open a public comment period, and then move to a final EIS.”

Holmstrom also believes that the Energy Transfer’s worst-case scenario understates how big an oil spill might potentially be. Should an oil spill occur, the tribe’s only source of water will be polluted and negatively affect fish, such as the endangered pallid sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus).

Speakers at a rally against the Dakota Access Pipeline in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2016. Image courtesy of Fibonacci Blue via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Tribal leaders say that a leak from the pipeline could also threaten tribal cultural sites along the Missouri River — a concern that Standing Rock raised in legal filings against DAPL.

Tribal leaders expressed concern that Energy Transfer would not be able to get the equipment needed to contain a spill onto ice and into the water at lake Oahe at the designated location.

“Roads leading to the river and most access points on the reservation in the vicinity of the pipeline are not usable at the present time,” says Crow Ghost.

Janet Alkire, the newly elected Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairperson, says that to ensure the safety of Standing Rock’s Tribal members, the Army Corps must raise Lake Oahe to safe levels or shut down the Dakota Access pipeline immediately.

“Our way of life at Standing Rock relies on our water, and we have to protect it.”

Mongabay reached out to Energy Transfer for a comment but did not receive a response.


Update: This article has been updated with comments by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on February 4, 2022.

Banner image: Tribal protestors at Sacred Stone Camp in Canon Ball, North Dakota, near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2016. Image courtesy of Joe Brusky via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Cultural Survival’s Daisee Francour and The Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal on the importance of securing Indigenous land rights within the context of a global push for land privatization. Listen here:

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