Just last week — and nearly three years after crude oil began running through the apparatus — it was announced that the United States Army Corps of Engineer’s (USACE) will conduct a comprehensive environmental review of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The order was issued after a United States federal judge found the USACE’s previous approval of federal permits for the pipeline to be in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. If the environmental impact study to be released does not come out favorably for the DAPL, it could mean the closing down of the pipeline altogether.
This ruling has elicited celebration from various Native American groups — most notably, the Standing Rock Sioux — many of whom have been protesting the pipeline for years now. Said protests reached a fever pitch in the latter half of 2016. Therein, police repeatedly used excessive force on peaceful protesters.
One of the most publicized of these incidents was when, in November of 2016, police blasted a group of 400 or so DAPL protesters standing outside in freezing temperatures with water cannons, shot at them with rubber bullets, and sprayed them with tear gas. Reports show that these attacks left more than 150 injured.
In September of the same year, the federal government ordered construction workers to bulldoze privately owned land that had been designated as sacred ground by the Standing Rock Sioux. When protesters tried to block them from doing so, security personnel stuck attack dogs on them. At least six protesters were bitten. Through all the chaos of the DAPL protests, around 300 were injured and around 500 were arrested.
These abuses of power ran so rampant that representatives from the United Nations (UN) saw fit to speak out about the situation. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association at the time, Maina Kiai, was quoted as saying that state conduct toward the demonstrators “amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment.” Further, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, went so far as to call for a complete end to the DAPL’s construction. In doing so, Tauli-Corpuz cited concerns about risks to drinking water and the potential destruction of tribal lands.
This sentiment echoes a lot of what the protesters on the ground have been saying for quite some time. One of their chief concerns is that the DAPL will leak oil into their water supplies and sacred lands. And these fears seem well-placed. In its first six months of operation alone, the DAPL leaked at least five times. And while there have been significant efforts to cover up the failures of the pipeline, what we do know is that, with the companies that own the DAPL constantly increasing the amount of oil pumped through it, the likelihood of leaking will only continue to go up. For this reason, many environmental groups — such as Greenpeace and Earthjustice — have also been adamant in their opposition to the DAPL.
It is worth noting that a big leak could lead to huge numbers of Native Americans being displaced. And it would not be the first time a major industrial project has done so. Just up the road from the site of the DAPL protests, the construction of the Lake Oahe Dam stripped away nearly 56,000 acres from the Standing Rock Reservation and displaced hundreds of families.
And that brings us to another big worry about the DAPL: that it infringes on tribal sovereignty. And, indeed, the construction of the pipeline is in clear violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which established the Great Sioux Reservation, encompassing parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. The DAPL runs right through this territory. Moreover, former Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault II made it clear as far back as 2014, that the tribe unequivocally opposes all pipeline projects within treaty boundaries.
To sum up, it seems that, with their backs against the wall, the Standing Rock Sioux have managed to claim a substantial victory. In the words of current tribal chairman Mike Faith, “After years of commitment to defending our water and earth, we welcome this news of a significant legal win. It’s humbling to see how actions we took to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices ultimately affect this planet.”