On Saturday, December 4th, 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their allies in North Dakota won a huge victory to protect their water from the potential of an oil spill. That was the day that the Army Corps of Engineers decided to not grant a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to pass through the tribe’s territory and under a nearby river that is Standing Rock’s only fresh water source. The DAPL permit was subject of a months-long battle between Native American protesters and the pipeline’s developer, Energy Transfer Partners LP. While land rights were an issue, this was largely a battle for the right to clean water far into the future.
The fight resumed this year, however.
The Trump administration brought in swift and regressive change to the fate of Standing Rock's fight for clean water. In February of this year, executive action reversed the Army Corps decision. As of now, the pipeline is back in courts with Standing Rock’s lawyers, Earthjustice, requesting motions for review.
Why care about oil, and what about pipelines?
There are around 2.5 million miles of pipelines nationwide carrying oil, gasoline and other fuels through a web that traverses landscapes and crosses many waterways. Many of those pipelines are also vulnerable to breaks and spill: they may be aging, sit on unstable ground, or are susceptible to corrosion that can eat through the pipes themselves.
There have indeed been many spills over recent years, raising concerns from environmental advocates and others. Based on data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) there were 326 “significant spills” in 2015 alone – or almost 1 per day. (For those who are interested, a full map of the 10,000-plus significant spills from 1986-2016 is available here).
When a spill does happen, the oil that is released can be damaging for nearby environments and – if a spill goes in a waterway – any areas downstream. Most media looking at oil spills covers the effect on wildlife (such as images of oil-covered sea otters and birds after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010).
However, oil and other liquids contain many toxic chemicals and carcinogens that can all be extremely dangerous for public health.
Benzene, for example, can have long-term effects including leukemia and other cancers. The entire concoction of chemicals in oil is so harmful that if any crude oil spills into a city’s drinking supply, the whole water supply has to be cut off to prevent residents from ingesting any toxic substances.
The risk of pipeline spills have galvanized growing concern and spurred resistance to the construction of pipelines the first place. Communities on the front lines have been starting to fight back, as we see in Standing Rock.
Remembering Canada’s Spill
Past pipeline spills shine a light on the danger that leaked oil can present to drinking water. One recent disaster in Canada provides a perfect example of a spill straight into a drinking water source. This has also served as proof for anti-pipeline advocates that real dangers exist to their water and lives. Here is the story:
In late July 2016, a pipeline carrying crude oil burst open and leaked an estimated 66,000 gallons of crude oil into the North Saskatchewan River, which provides the drinking water for several Canadian cities downstream. At least two cities – North Battleford and Prince Albert – were forced to shut off their water intake and both moved to back up water supplies, Including emergency water towers.
The Prince Albert water tower held enough to last for 48 hours as officials built an emergency 18-mile water pipeline to the South Saskatchewan River, which eventually saved the drinking water of the town’s 35,000 residents.
The spill took months to clean up and still has lasting environmental damage.
That's the norm for pipeline spills. Reversing environmental and health damage is harder than preventing it.
Tar Sands, Dakota Access and Standing Rock
The story from Standing Rock starts with a radical transformation in how oil is being produced in Canada and US. There has been rapid expansion of “tar sands” operations in the Dakotas, certain parts of Canada and other states along the border. The process takes tar sands - an almost muddy Mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen, a “Black viscous oil” - and smooths it down into a more liquid form to be sent to refineries and turned into oil products including gasoline, chemicals and plastics.
Most of the refineries used by tar sands companies are located in Western Canada and the US Gulf Coast, so tar sands operations need a way to transport that oil over thousands of miles. The only main options are freight trains and pipeline – and oil companies are locking down on the pipelines in a big way.
One of those pipelines, already under construction, is the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). If completed, DAPL will carry crude from North Dakota to refineries on the Gulf Coast by traversing landscapes and crossing rivers. One of those waterways is the Missouri River which passes by Bismarck, North Dakota – and right by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s territory. The Missouri is also the Sioux tribe’s sole source of fresh drinking water, making it a precious resource to their livelihoods.
DAPL was originally slated to pass under the Missouri up river from Bismarck, but that route was redirected out of concerns that a spill could affect the water source for the city’s 162,000 residents. The Army Corps of Engineers (which permits and approves pipeline routes) and Energy Transfer Partners (the operator of the proposed pipeline) then chose a different route through the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s territory.
The proposal raised massive objection from Standing Rock and its allies. DAPL’s construction was viewed as a clear affront to tribal sovereignty as it would pass right over treaty land without permission; the construction itself would destroy sacred burial grounds; and any spill into the Missouri would endanger the drinking water of 4,000 Native Americans. It was also an egregious case of environmental injustice: government and pipeline operators were concerned enough about Bismarck’s residents, so they rerouted the pipeline. When it came to Native American tribal lands and livelihoods, Energy Transfer Partners and local governments have ruthlessly pursued their plans to build.
The tribes have been treated by these interests as disposable in the name of the fossil fuel industry.
Fighting back, and being attacked
In August 2016, Standing Rock leaders and other self-described “Water Protectors” began protesting the pipeline in order to protect their land and water rights.
The Water Protectors called throughout their struggle: “water is life.”
The White House stepped in to temporarily halt the construction on September 11 as it reviewed plans – however, the pipeline company continued moving forward and government actors did nothing to actively halt the construction. Energy Transfer Partners was especially aggressive in how it tried to stop the protests, as well.
At one point in early September, unlicensed ETP security guards released attack dogs on the Water Protectors (journalist Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! even caught video of those dogs with bloodied snouts) and it would only escalate from there. The crackdown also included police and other government entities: on October 11 the South Dakota Governor called for out-of-state deputies to help suppress protests, and the response became increasingly militarized. Riot police and military vehicles arrived through the following weeks, even raiding a camp at one point – something very out of proportion for peaceful protesters organizing for clean water.
As news of the struggle spread, the Standing Rock tribe received more and more support from allies across the United States. Many allies traveled to a makeshift camp directly in the way of the pipeline’s route in an effort to block its continued construction. The crackdown expanded as well: in response, riot police at one point even released teargas and rubber bullets on nighttime protesters, injuring several and leaving one in the hospital with severe injuries.
The struggle at Standing Rock, though, continued spreading over social media and increasingly through news outlets - and public pressure grew and kept growing. Calls for environmental justice and solidarity with #NoDAPL spread nationally.
Energy Transfer Partners was also facing a danger of the ongoing protests: if the pipeline wasn’t completed by the end of the year, its contract with oil producers would have been compromised and it would have to renegotiate (or abandon the project entirely, in the middle of its construction). With pressure on both sides and a severe public profile, the Army Corps of Engineers decided on December 4 to deny the permit for the pipeline. For a time, the Standing Rock tribe’s water seemed safe.
Regressive Action: White House Reversals in 2017
The Trump administration swiftly acted to reverse much of the work fought for by Standing Rock and supporters. On February 8th, the executive office reversed the Army Corps decision, thus opening up way for Dakota Access, LLC to lay pipe under the river. Earthjustice, an environmental law firm representing the Standing Rock tribes, filed a “motion for summary of the judgment”, which brings forward legal questions within a case that are undetermined. At present, the appeals and stalling of the decision remain in court.
In a conversation about the case and its history, environmental lawyer Jan Hasselman argues that the injustices that fueled #NoDAPL are part and parcel of the American tradition:
There is a time-honored tradition in America of putting the risks and the pollution of industry and toxic sites on the people who have the least political power—primarily low-income people and people of color. The concept is environmental justice. And I've never seen a balder case of environmental justice concerns than this one.
Water is Life
Pipeline spills have been a growing problem in the United States and will continue as our infrastructure gets older. Those spills can endanger waterways nearby and far downriver, even affecting drinking water in the process. The struggle at Standing Rock for environmental justice is not complete, and it will certainly not be the last.
Continue, with us at SimpleWater, to Stand with Standing Rock.
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