By Dan Siegel / Original to Scheerpost
Four years late, a federal judge in Washington ruled Monday that the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) must be shut down while the Army Corps of Engineers prepares a “detailed and comprehensive” Environmental Impact Statement regarding the pipeline’s impact on Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Oglala, and Yankton Sioux tribal lands in North and South Dakota. Judge James E. Boasberg ordered the shutdown while the Corps conducts the review he previously ordered under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The pipeline, which crosses a dammed section of the Missouri River known as Lake Oahe in central North Dakota, has been pumping oil for over three years since authorities overcame the determined resistance of thousands of Native American people and their supporters. The Corps’ DAPL approval was its second recent attack on the land rights of the Standing Rock Sioux following its approval of the dam that created Lake Oahe and flooded the tribe’s most productive farmland.
The court’s action provides at least a temporary reprieve for opponents of the pipeline. In 2016, the Army Corps announced that the pipeline had to pause its operations pending further review, but soon after he took office in 2017, President Trump ordered that work on DAPL be accelerated. The new review is estimated to take more than a year to complete.
Beginning in early 2016, Indigenous people from throughout North America and allies from around the world set up camp on Standing Rock Sioux land and attempted to block the construction of the pipeline.
Judge Boasberg’s decision may be quickly overturned by the court of appeals or the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court offered a bit of hope on Monday when it declined to stay the decision of a federal judge in Montana who ordered the halt of work on the Keystone XL pipeline while appeals are heard of his ruling that the approval of the Keystone violated the Endangered Species Act.
Beginning in early 2016, Indigenous people from throughout North America and allies from around the world set up camp on Standing Rock Sioux land and attempted to block the construction of the pipeline being built to transport crude oil from the Bakken fields in western North Dakota to an oil terminal in Illinois. Authorities had rerouted DAPL from a path closer to white population centers near Bismarck, the state capital, to native land, where it threatens water supplies and important cultural sites.
Police and national guardsmen waged pitched battles against the Water Protectors, using dogs, water cannons, and military units. Authorities arrested more than 800 and injured at least 300. At the height of the protests, the pipeline crews were forced to abandon their worksites as protestors took control of the area just south of the Missouri River. The protest camps closed in February 2017.
I joined the Water Protectors in December 2016, driving south for 90 minutes across frozen prairie from Bismarck. Despite bitter cold and ice that turned the prairie sparkling white, hundreds of Water Protectors had set up orderly camps and prepared to spend the winter. The main camp included hundreds of shelters — tipis, army surplus tents, and semi-permanent buildings insulated against the weather. Large tents housed cafeterias and bathroom facilities.
Dozens of military veterans had come to defend the camps and help create their infrastructure. Colorful banners and flags flew everywhere, identifying the tribes and political organizations committed to disrupting the pipeline project. On the day I arrived, the “Legal Tent” was closed, but I was welcomed as an elder and invited to take a seat at the Sacred Fire that burned continuously at the center of the camp. Tribal elders including Rosebud Sioux Darrell Manuel invited me to join them in spiritual exercises to protect the land.
The Water Protectors Legal Collective organized lawyers from around the country to represent those arrested, including half a dozen who faced serious felony charges. Most of the attorneys who responded were members of the National Lawyers Guild. The work was difficult. Judges and prosecutors in Mandan, where the trials were held, were hostile to the Water Protectors and their outsider lawyers. The juries were even worse, appearing to continue the settler tradition of attacks on Indigenous people they regarded as subhuman.
Fortunately, the sheer volume of dealing with 800 criminal cases forced the North Dakota authorities to make meaningful concessions. The state Supreme Court authorized out-of-state lawyers to handle the cases, as long as we did not charge for our work.
We tried a few cases without juries, and I was fortunate to win the acquittal of Kanahus Manuel, a leader of the Secwepemc and Tanaka nations and of the Tiny House Warriors movement in British Columbia. The arresting officers were unable to demonstrate that Kanahus and her co-defendants had actually trespassed on posted lands, and the trial judge was forced to rule in our favor. As a result of the courage of the Water Protectors and a group of determined lawyers, prosecutors in Mandan ultimately agreed to resolve most of the cases without demanding jail time.
Judge Boasberg’s decision offers some hope that the fossil fuel industry and its government supporters will be required to follow laws designed to protect Indigenous people from predation and to preserve the environment.
Copyright 2020 Dan Siegel