Oil pipeline fuels fears in Native American reservations
Dakota access pipeline set to pass a short distance from Standing Rock reservation
The Dakota access pipeline passes close to the northern boundary of the Standing Rock reservation and under the Missouri river, in the background. Photograph: Stephen Starr
It’s been three years since thousands of protesters, environmentalists and more than 95 Native American nations gathered in a field-turned-campsite on the fringes of Standing Rock reservation, attempting to stop the Dakota access pipeline from being built a short distance from the reservation’s land.
Their efforts mostly proved in vain. Since June 2017, the pipeline – known as DAPL – has been carrying about 570,000 barrels of crude oil from the Bakken Formation in northwest North Dakota to Illinois every day.
And although Standing Rock’s remote expanses across North and South Dakota have since turned quiet, local residents find themselves facing a new dilemma. Not only is the pipeline now set firmly underground, its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), in June announced plans to double DAPL’s capacity.
Currently the pipeline carries crude oil on a route running within a mile of Standing Rock and under the nearby Missouri river, an important water source for communities and businesses across the reservation. The proposed increase would result in the equivalent of more than 70 Olympic-sized swimming pools of oil pass through the pipeline every day.
Possibility of major leak
Tribal leaders fear the heightened capacity could further increase the possibility of a major oil leak or spill, with the pipeline section buried deep under the Missouri river of particular concern.
“That’s greatly increasing the risk, and the harm from a potential release,” says Elliott Ward, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s emergency manager. “They [the operating company] say they have [leak] detectors, but we know their spill detection track record is grossly inefficient. If there’s a spill that’s less than one per cent, it won’t detect it at all. That’s still 6,000 gallons [a day] that could be leaking that their sensors won’t detect.”
A judge in North Dakota has granted the tribe a request to intervene in the increased capacity plan, and it will take part in a public hearing scheduled for November 13th.
This follows a long and keenly contested series of disputes involving multiple sides in recent years. In 2016, the tribe sued the US army corps of engineers, which regulates activities pertaining to waterways across the country, for allegedly failing to meaningfully respond to its initial concerns relating to the construction of the pipeline.
In December 2016, at the height of the protest movement, the corps denied ETP an easement – the right to use or cross land belonging to another entity – and called for alternative pipeline routes to be explored and assessed through an environmental impact statement.
Within days of taking office, however, President Donald Trump, who received $103,000 (€93,000) from ETP’s billionaire chief executive during his 2016 presidential campaign, issued an executive memo calling on the corps to speed up its assessment.
Soon after, the corps withdrew the impact statement proposal, and on February 7th, 2017, approved the easement to allow the pipeline pass under the Missouri river.
Cody Two Bears, an environmentalist who lives in Cannon Ball, the town closest to the pipeline, says if a leak or breakage near or under the river were to occur, it could be weeks or longer before anyone except the operators find out. Towns such as Cannon Ball and Fort Yates, a 25-minute drive downstream, use Missouri river water for everyday use. “If something goes bad with the pipeline, we will be the worst affected,” he says.
In 2016, the tribe opened a new water treatment plant 113km downstream of where the pipeline crosses the Missouri. Were oil to enter the river from the pipeline, it would take between nine and 13 hours to flow downstream and reach the treatment plant, according to Reuters.
A report assessing the impact of an oil leak released by the tribe in February 2018 warned: “The corps of engineers and DAPL’s current estimates of a worst-case oil release into the Missouri river and underlying aquifer are based upon unrealistic assumptions, and the environmental impacts of an oil spill may be far greater than disclosed in the final environmental assessment.”
Emails to ETP seeking comment on the pipeline’s leakage detection technology and other queries went unanswered.
Though many energy companies claim that transporting oil through pipelines is safer than via rail, pipeline spills and leaks are far from uncommon. In July, a leak on a pipeline operated by Polar Midstream LLC saw 21,000 gallons of the toxic wastewater brine used in fracking processes spill into a tributary of the Missouri river several hundred miles upriver of Standing Rock.
ETP, too, has had a chequered recent history with accidental spillages. Last September, a leak from a pipeline run by a subsidiary, Sunoco, in Pennsylvania led to a fire that destroyed a house. The company has also faced the wrath of officials in Ohio and West Virginia for causing environmental damage and water pollution on several occasions during the construction phase of a natural gas pipeline.
“Data collected from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration shows that the ETP family of hazardous liquids pipelines experienced 527 incidents from 2002 to the end of 2017,” found an April 2018 report from Greenpeace, “spilling ~87,000 barrels, and causing an estimated $115 million [€104 million] in property damage.”
Back at Standing Rock, the field that became a temporary home and symbol of defiance for 15,000 activists and demonstrators in 2016 is today just an empty, wind-blown pasture. A sign attached to a fence ringing the field warns against trespassing by order of the US government. The prairies of this vast reservation may be quiet now, but for the people of Standing Rock the battle looks set to go on.