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Standing Rock update: Cheers for Corps decision

Locations: News Published

Opponents still wary

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

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Despite a recent decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to withhold a permit that would send the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, it appears that the battle over the pipeline project is far from over.

The Corps, following months of protests by members of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes and thousands of supporters from around the country and the world, last weekend announced it would not immediately grant the final permit for the pipeline route.

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That last permit is needed to allow the Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) company to tunnel under the river for placing the last uncompleted section of the pipeline.

The protesters, who call themselves “water protectors,” fear that leaks from the pipeline could contaminate the Missouri River and surrounding groundwater, which is the tribes’ only source of drinking water.

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The tribes also contend that the pipeline construction already has disturbed sites that are sacred to the Sioux, and that further construction would worsen that disturbance.

In its announcement, the Corps called for a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) study of the project, which could take months or years depending on a variety of factors, and mentioned the possibility of rerouting the pipeline altogether.

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The pipeline, if approved and finished, would carry roughly 470,000 barrels of crude oil annually from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to a pipeline juncture in Illinois, and from there to refineries and shipping terminals along the Gulf Coast and in other parts of the country.

“This is a small win; it is a win in the right direction,” conceded Shawna Foster, minister of the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist Church in Carbondale and one of dozens of Roaring Fork Valley residents who have traveled to Standing Rock to help keep the protest going.

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But, Foster continued, supporters of the tribal leaders fighting the pipeline project fear the Corps decision to hold up the permit could be overturned by president-elect Donald Trump once he takes office in January, or simply ignored by the company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP).

“They could just start drilling anyway,” Foster said, citing a growing suspicion that the company would rather pay an anticipated fine of $50,000 per day for resuming its work, rather than let the $3.5 billion pipeline project sit idle and possibly miss delivery deadlines for the Bakken crude.

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Some observers have claimed that deadline will come in January.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground at Standing Rock has gotten more complicated.

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Calls to vacate

Sioux tribal leaders have called on demonstrators to vacate the area, citing the approach of what may be a harsh period of winter weather and an inability to adequately provide lodging and services to the thousands of supporters who have flocked to the area.

Standing Rock Tribal Council Chairman Dave Archambault II, in a video released over the weekend, has asked that the protesters pack up and leave, so that the company cannot use news stories about continued clashes between protesters and authorities as evidence that the Corps’ decision was a bad one.

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“It’s time to go home,” Archambault said, speaking into a camera. “It’s OK to go home, and if it’s needed in the future, you’re welcome to come back.”

He maintained that ETP cannot simply ignore the Corps decision, without potentially harming its own financial interests by prompting a backlash among its investors.

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Plus, he said, if ETP violates the order to stop drilling, it would spark a confrontation with the Corps itself.

“They would never get an easement if they cross that boundary,” Archambault maintained.

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But some Sioux tribal members, along with some from other tribes that have come to support the Standing Rock tribe, and other non-tribal-members who have driven hundreds or thousands of miles to deliver supplies and to help create several camps around the river crossing site, have said they are planning to stay on at the camps and continue to block any possibility that the pipeline will be finished.

“The fight’s not over,” said Carbondale resident Tim Brogdon, who has been leading the effort to send convoys to Standing Rock loaded with supplies and people. “They’re still drilling.”

He noted that there are a number of GoFundMe websites devoted to raising money for the Standing Rock support (type “gofundme” and “standing rock” into an online search engine), and that some who already have traveled to Standing Rock from Carbondale are making plans to go again, as long as they feel their help is needed.

In addition, he said, Phyllis and Amos Bald Eagle, elders of the Cheyenne River tribe who have been prominent in the “water protectors” movement, have told him they are not leaving.

“They never had any intention of leaving,” Brogdon said, adding that the Sioux and other Native Americans who are refusing to leave are not necessarily going against their tribal leaders.

Instead, he said, they recognize that the leaders are worried for their safety, but feel they have made adequate plans to survive the harsh weather.

One such effort is the ongoing construction of a “transition village” at the site, which is being built to show the world how to live without depending on fossil fuels.

“They don’t make decisions for us,” Brogdon said he was told by Phyllis Bald Eagle, referring to the tribal leaders.

He said he, like others in town, plans to continue working on behalf of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River tribes.

“What they’re doing is fighting the hard fight, and it’s good,” he said. “It needs to be fought.”

And non-tribal citizens of the U.S. should pay attention and, if possible, get involved, because “we’re all going to have our own Standing Rock, as of Jan. 20,” a reference to the planned inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump on that date.

Catching on?

Foster, who has maintained all along that the fight at Standing Rock is about more than simply Native American rights and sovereignty, said that in her time at the demonstration site she met people from all over the U.S. and even from Europe, as well as members of various tribes.

She, and others, have argued that possible leaks or failures of pipelines such as the Dakota Access would spell trouble not just for the reservations, but for millions of people who live downstream along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

And they feel that the concerns they have are catching on with a broader audience than might be linked to Standing Rock.

For that reason, she said, it is important that the resistance to projects such as Dakota Access be recognized as protests against humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels and the need for alternatives.

For example, she said, one result of stopping the pipeline “could be a heck of a lot more wind farms in North Dakota,” rather than oil wells and the infrastructure that comes with them.

“Yesterday was a day of celebration,” she said of the day the Corps announcement was made.

“But we’re still faced with the war against the pipeline, against the black snake,” she concluded, adding that the war is gaining adherents.

She mentioned growing calls to halt pipeline construction in states around the U.S., such as Florida, Texas and Iowa.

And on Tuesday, the National Resources Defense Council issued a report arguing that President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2015 has resulted in plans by Canadian energy companies to boost the use of pipelines, ships, barges and other conveyances on U.S. rivers and along the Pacific coast, to ship tar-sands crude to refineries and shipping terminals along the Gulf Coast and in California.

“‘Standing Rock’ of the Pacific Coast?” asked the online header announcing both the study and a national telephone press conference scheduled for Dec. 7 to discuss the report’s findings, which present alarming predictions of potential spills and leaks, and what the consequences might be.

Published in The Sopris Sun on December 8, 2016.