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6 Years After Standing Rock, Native Tribes Still Fight Dakota Access Pipeline

The Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes say the pipeline threatens to contaminate their primary water source.

Indigenous environmental activists sing the Warrior Woman Song in front of a large tripod built to block traffic near Black Lives Matter Plaza on the north side of the White House as part of a protest against oil pipelines on April 1, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Morgan Brings Plenty, now 29 and a digital organizing fellow at Indigenous Environmental Network, was in their early 20s when they first heard about Energy Transfer Partner’s Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in late 2015. A member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, they could feel the tension regarding the pipeline in their community — and they were always close to the action. Their late mom, Joye Braun, was the first to set up her tipi in what would become the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock on April 1, 2016, to protest the building of the oil pipeline through the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and tribal sacred sites.

Back then, it was still cold and snowy out, Brings Plenty told Truthout. Initially, there were no people and no toiletries, they said. “There was nothing out there. It was just my mom and her campfire.” Brings Plenty stayed at the camp from the beginning to its end in 2017. “A lot of the time, it felt like home. I felt free there.”

Home to an estimated 4,000 people, the Oceti Sakowin camp became one of the largest displays of Native resistance in recent history. The Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes say the pipeline, which now travels underneath the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, poses a threat of contamination to their primary water source. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe also believes DAPL violates Article II of the Fort Laramie Treaty, which guarantees the “undisturbed use and occupation” of reservation lands surrounding the location of the pipeline. The Oceti Sakowin protest camp was met with militarized police, arrests and violence.

“I remember not getting enough sleep,” Brings Plenty told Truthout. “Because when you’re hearing the drones coming through, you’re hearing the planes coming through; when you don’t know when someone’s going to shout ‘they’re coming’ or ‘gear up and get ready,’ you’re constantly in survival mode.” But being at Oceti Sakowin, they said, also provided a sense of community: The multiple camps relied on each other for help, medical attention, schooling for the kids, and more.

In February 2017, however, law enforcement entered Oceti Sakowin and did a final sweep of the Water Protectors who refused to leave before officially shutting down the camp and the protest. Since then, the tribes have been protesting in other ways, be that advocating in courts, pushing for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), digital advocacy, and more.

Despite their efforts, the pipeline has been running for five years since it first became operational in June 2017 and has severely impacted the lives of the Sioux people. The construction of the pipeline began in July 2016, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted the construction in December 2016 after heavy protests and legal challenges from the tribes. In 2017, the Army Corps published a notice in the Federal Register indicating that an EIS was in the works. However, within four days of taking office, President Donald Trump signed an executive memorandum instructing the Army Corps to expedite the review and approval process for the unbuilt section of the pipeline. Following this, the Army Corps granted the easement allowing the pipeline to cross under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Army Corps also issued a statement saying it intended to end the public comment period and would no longer be working on an EIS.

However, in 2020, a federal judge vacated the easement and ruled the Army Corps had violated environmental laws and mandated an EIS, in a victory for the Sioux Tribe. In January 2021, though, the D.C. Circuit ruled the pipeline could continue to operate while the review is being conducted.

The Standing Rock Sioux continue to see the pipeline’s operation as an existential and critical threat to their safety and livelihood, according to Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney for the Lakota People’s Law Project who was raised on the Standing Rock Nation and now lives on the Oglala Lakota Nation. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have an emergency management department, but they do not have the financial capacity to handle a catastrophic spill, he told Truthout. “So our lives are not the same anymore. We’re worrying about that every single day. Every single day, people are, in the back of their minds, wondering if they’re gonna get a call saying the oil is leaking underneath the water.”

Within its first year of operation, DAPL leaked at least five times, though most of the leaks were minor. The biggest was a 168-gallon leak near DAPL’s endpoint in Patoka, Illinois. Tribes fear that even minor spills could have large consequences.

We’re just doing our best that we can in our communities and online, to spread the awareness that this is still happening and the fight is not over.

According to a 2016 environmental assessment, the Army Corps believes it would be able to detect any leaks within minutes and take action accordingly. The report reads, “This state-of-the-art [Computational Pipeline Monitoring] system is capable of detecting leaks down to 1 percent or better of the pipeline flow rate within a time span of approximately 1 hour or less and capable of providing rupture detection within 1 to 3 minutes.” But for a pipeline that moves 600,000 to 650,000 barrels of oil per day, and has the capacity to move up to 750,000 barrels per day, even a 1 percent leak would be catastrophic for the Sioux, Iron Eyes told Truthout.

“The Army Corps and Energy Transfer say that they’d be able to contain it and so forth. But for us; that’s the end of the world. For us, we would probably have to move away from the Standing Rock Reservation,” he said. “Because who would want to live there, with oil spills and cancerous water all around you. That’s the only place we get our drinking water, so it’s very, very serious.”

Environmental Impact Statement Outlines Five Options for Evaluation

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the Army Corps to prepare an EIS for the Standing Rock portion of the pipeline on March 25, 2020, because the pipeline’s “effects on the quality of the human environment are likely to be highly controversial.” It has taken the Army Corps more than three years to produce the report.

The EIS was finally released on September 8 and proposed five alternative options for evaluation. The most meaningful of these alternatives are described as “No Action Alternatives,” which would mean denying the easement for the crossing of the pipeline beneath Lake Oahe and either removing or abandoning a 7,500-foot segment.

Other alternatives proposed do little to reduce the environmental impact. For example, one alternative involves increasing the amount of oil running through the pipeline to 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd), up from the 570,000 bpd allowed previously, which could potentially be even more catastrophic in case of a leak. Another alternative involves allowing the Lake Oahe easement with “additional measures [that] are expected to generally result in increased operational safety.” The final alternative proposed in the EIS is a change in the pipeline’s route known as the “The North Bismarck Reroute,” something that was considered in the initial 2016 environmental assessment.

The initial plan for the 1,172-mile pipeline route involved crossing the Missouri River north of Bismarck, North Dakota, but that plan was ultimately scrapped for fear of an oil spill that could ruin the state capital’s drinking water.

Annalee Yellow Hammer, who was raised on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and was 12 or 13 when the pipeline started being built and protests erupted, questioned the fairness of not wanting to subject an area with a majority white population to oil spills, but being willing to do the same near the reservation. “If they didn’t think it was okay for their water intake system because it would contaminate it and affect their lives, then why bring it to ours? Who’s to say that us Native Americans don’t deserve to have a future?” she said.

Problems With the Environmental Impact Statement

Even with the EIS’s recent publishing, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe contends the EIS wasn’t done fairly. In a video clip published by the tribe, Standing Rock Chairwoman Janet Alkire said that, while the tribe initially agreed to be a cooperating partner to ensure the EIS was done properly, a federally mandated public review failed when the Army Corps “chose a proponent of the fossil fuel industry to conduct the EIS.” Alkire then signed a letter addressed to the Army Corps withdrawing the Standing Rock Sioux as a cooperating partner.

The Army Corps asked Environmental Resources Management (ERM) to prepare the EIS. ERM is a member of the American Petroleum Institute, which, according to a tribal press release, submitted a brief in favor of DAPL and against Standing Rock. The tribe sees this as “a clear conflict of interest” and is calling for the Army Corps to “start from scratch” on the EIS.

The press release also states that the EIS “ignores virtually every major concern voiced by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe,” and that it does not account for Energy Transfer’s abysmal safety record and DAPL’s lack of an adequate emergency response plan. Alkire stated in the press release that she thinks “the process is a sham.”

Waniya Locke, who is from Wakpala, the second-smallest community in Standing Rock, says, “The tribes were not even considered, even in the EIS. And if it wasn’t for the tribes and tribal people demanding the EIS, it wouldn’t have even been done.”

The Army Corps has scheduled two public meetings to hear comments on the EIS on November 1 and 2 in Bismarck, and the tribes, especially the youth, are ready to have their voices heard. “I just really love [the tribal youth] and appreciate them for being so steadfast out there and never, never losing hope that we’re going to defeat this, and we’re going to protect the land and water,” Locke told Truthout.

For Iron Eyes, the way forward is to make Energy Transfer reconsider how it’s done business in their lands, and to continue to build alliances to compel smart decision making that doesn’t serve the corporate extractive industry and instead serves intelligent and humane policy at all levels, he says. He also hopes to continue to platform Indigenous nations and Indigenous leadership.

Brings Plenty told Truthout, “We’re just doing our best that we can in our communities and online, to spread the awareness that this is still happening and the fight is not over.”

Note: The headline has been updated to say six years instead of five, to count from 2017, when the pipeline first started.