The University’s Native American Student Union issued a statement of solidarity last Saturday with the Standing Rock Sioux in their legal battle and demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Although the pipeline runs predominantly through privately owned land in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, it also runs within a half-mile of territory belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux in North and South Dakota and directly through areas of cultural and religious significance to the tribe.
“The pipeline would not only cross the Missouri River — the tribe’s main source of drinking water — but it would irrevocably defile and destroy traditionally sacred sites and burial grounds, places still revered and frequented to this day by their people,” NASU said in its statement. “All of this damage would occur directly beside tribal lands, and an oil spillage of any significance, which is not unlikely, would be dire for the tribe.”
Evelyn Immonen, a third-year College student and the NASU’s chief financial officer, said the pipeline poses a personal threat.
“That’s my heritage,” she said. “I’m from Standing Rock, [N.D.], and I visited Standing Rock with my grandmother. She was born in Fort Yates, [N.D.], and we still have relatives out there.”
Energy Transfer Partners, a Texas-based company specializing in natural gas, natural gas liquids, refined product and crude oil transport, received approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for construction of the pipeline, which will transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois for refinement and distribution.
“The North Dakota Bakken has witnessed a significant increase in the production of crude oil, from 309,000 barrels a day in 2010 to 1 million barrels a day in 2014,” ETP said in a statement on its website. “This energy will need reliable transportation networks to reach U.S. markets, and pipelines are the safest, most efficient means of accomplishing this task.”
ETP released an internal memo on Sept. 13 addressing the pipeline’s controversy and emphasizing its economic and safety benefits.
“Today the 1,172 mile project is nearly 60 percent complete, employs more than 8,000 highly trained skilled labor workers who are safely constructing it, and we have spent just over $1.6 billion on equipment, materials and the workforce to date,” Kelcy Warren, chairman and chief executive officer of ETP, said in the memo.
NASU’s statement follows the Sept. 9 rejection of the tribe’s request for a Preliminary Injunction, which was dismissed by the district court on the grounds that the plaintiffs had not adequately demonstrated that an immediate suspension of construction would mitigate irreparable damage to cultural resources.
The day the memorandum opinion was released, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior issued a joint statement temporarily halting construction within 20 miles of Lake Oahe.
The tribe’s lawsuit, filed in July against the USACE, is still under review.
Cale Jaffe, assistant Law professor at the University, explained that the lawsuit hinged on the government’s responsibility to consult federally-recognized tribes in decisions that could jeopardize their historical or cultural resources.
“The core allegation — in the lawsuit — is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hasn’t met its obligations to include the tribe in that consultation process, that that process hasn’t been adequate under the statute,” Jaffe said. “And they point to the broader area around where the pipeline would be built to a lot of historic, cultural and religious resources that are of great value to the tribe going back generations.”
Warren said in the ETP memo, however, that both ETP and USACE consulted extensively with the tribal community in gaining approval for the project.
“We worked to meet with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe leaders on multiple occasions in the past two years and gave the U.S. Army Corps data for their 389 meetings with more than 55 tribes across the project, including nine with The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at Lake Oahe,” Warren said in the memo.
In an online statement, USACE said that it began consulting with tribes two years ago and has met with tribes, preservation officers and other interested parties more than 250 times about the pipeline.
On Sept. 12, the Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux filed an Emergency Motion for Injunction Pending Appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to enforce the government’s request of a 20-mile perimeter.
“An injunction is necessary to prevent additional destruction of sacred sites, as occurred over Labor Day weekend when a remarkable cultural landscape of graves and stone features was bulldozed within hours of evidence of these sites being filed with the district court,” the plaintiffs said in their appeal.
In the ETP memo, Warren said that the land had been constructed on in the past and that historic preservation officers had not found any evidence of sacred sites in the path of the pipeline.
“We — like all Americans — value and respect cultural diversity and the significant role that Native American culture plays in our nation’s history and its future and hope to be able to strengthen our relationship with the Native American communities as we move forward with this project,” Warren said in the memo.
Immonen said that the demonstrations going on now at the site of construction are not protests, but rather a show of solidarity among tribes of the Great Sioux Nation at pre-existing prayer camps.
“Everyone who’s at the camp right now is there in prayer, and in solidarity, and they consider themselves water protectors and homeland defenders more than they are protesters,” she said.
She stressed that the pipeline is not exclusively a tribal issue.
“The water protectors are there in solidarity not just as native nations, but also for everyone in the United States,” Immonen said. “It affects all Americans.”
Warren said that the pipeline does not pose any new threats to water quality.
“Concerns about the pipeline’s impact on the local water supply are unfounded,” he said in the memo. “Multiple pipelines, railways, and highways cross the Missouri River today, carrying hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil. Dakota Access was designed with tremendous safety factors and redundancies, including compliance with and exceeding all safety and environmental regulations.”
Immonen is involved in organizing a solidarity gathering at the Free Speech Wall downtown this Wednesday, a collaborative effort of NASU, the Native American Law Students Association and Showing Up For Racial Justice Charlottesville.
ETP and the USACE did not respond to request for comment.