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Standing Rock withdraws from environmental review of Dakota Access Pipeline

The tribe had been acting as a cooperating agency in the Army Corps' review of the controversial pipeline, but announced on Thursday that it has pulled over concerns about the agency's transparency and insufficient plans to address an oil leak.

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Signs left by protesters demonstrating against the Energy Transfer Partners Dakota Access oil pipeline sit at the gate of a construction access road where construction has been stopped for several weeks due to the protests near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannon Ball, N.D., U.S. September 6, 2016.
REUTERS/Andrew Cullen
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BISMARCK — The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe announced Thursday, Jan. 27, that it has withdrawn its participation in the federal government’s ongoing environmental assessment of operations of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Leaders from the tribe pointed to a lack of transparency by the operators of the pipeline and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the environmental review process, as well as recently low water levels in the Missouri River and its Lake Oahe reservoir that they said would exacerbate damages if oil were to escape from the pipeline.

Doug Crow Ghost, Administrator of the Tribe’s Water Resources Department, said in a statement Thursday that water levels in the lake are 12 feet below where they stood two years ago, “but the Corps continues to release water at Oahe as if it is business as usual.”

The Standing Rock leaders said that the Army Corps has not shown them a complete, unredacted version of the pipeline operators' plans for an emergency response in the case of a leak, and Crow Ghost said the response plans he has seen do not account for the recent low water levels, which have made key access points to the lake unusable.

“The prospect of an oil spill during such low water is truly scary,” he said.

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The Army Corps’ environmental review of Dakota Access was mandated in the spring of 2020 by a federal district court judge. Soon after, the same judge revoked the pipeline's environmental permit at its Missouri River crossing and ordered an immediate shutdown. The shutdown order was later overturned by a higher court, but the mandated environmental review has stood.

Energy Transfer, the parent company of Dakota Access, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

In a statement, an spokesperson for the Omaha District of the Army Corps, which is overseeing the environmental review, said the agency "would have preferred if the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, as a cooperating agency, remained involved in the (review) process," adding that they will continue to work with the tribe through nation-to-nation consultations.

"The concerns made by the tribe in their press release are related to what we are considering within the (environmental review) process on the issue of whether to issue an easement for the pipeline to cross Lake Oahe," said Deputy Director of Public Affairs Mike Glasch.

He added that because the agency has not reached a decision on that question, "we cannot take a position on the veracity of (the tribe's) allegation." It will be taken into consideration as the Army Corps prepares to issue a draft version of the environmental assessment in the coming weeks, fields public comments and moves forward with the final version of the review, he said.

Standing Rock’s decision to remove itself as a cooperating agency from the environmental review comes a few months after the tribe called on the Army Corps to scrap the assessment and start over , alleging the federal government was overseeing a biased review and failing to meet its obligations to the tribe. Former Chairman Mike Faith said at the time that the process was already “fatally flawed."

As party to the environmental review, the tribe was privy to draft versions, which they have said revealed the Army Corps has routinely shielded key information from them and ignored submissions of technical and cultural information.

A spokesperson for the GAIN Coalition, an organization supportive of Dakota Access, said Thursday that Standing Rock "continues to promote misinformation” about the pipeline, and expressed confidence that the results of the environmental review will show that it is operating safely.

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“The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s decision to withdraw as a cooperating agency with the Corps’ review of DAPL is disappointing,” said Craig Stevens. “While the Tribe’s decision to no longer ‘cooperate’ is well within their purview, it underscores that this whole exercise has been a solution in search of a regulatory problem.”

The Army Corps will hear public comments on a draft version of the environmental review before coming out with the final version. A spokesperson for Standing Rock said they are expecting the draft to be released in mid-February.

Results of the review, which began in the fall of 2020 and which is slated for completion this September, are expected to feature prominently in the agency's decision over whether to restore the pipeline's revoked permit.

Standing Rock Tribal Chairperson Janet Alkire, who was elected to her post last fall, said Thursday that the Army Corps has two options to ensure the safety of tribal members, either "raise Lake Oahe to safe levels or shut down the Dakota Access pipeline immediately."

North Dakota and the western United States were under severe drought conditions for much of the last year, contributing to lower than normal water levels in the Missouri River. A spokesperson for the Army Corps said 2021 runoff in the upper basin of the Missouri River was at the 10th lowest in 123 years of record-keeping, but noted drought conservation measures "have already been implemented" by the agency.

Energy Transfer has also appealed a case mandating the environmental assessment up the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court is scheduled to hold a conference of the appeal next month, and could announce after whether it will hear the pipeline company’s case.

Dakota Access has carried oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region to market since operations began in 2017. Energy Transfer is in the process of expanding the pipeline’s capacity and most recently said it can carry up to 750,000 barrels of oil a day.

This story was updated Monday, Jan. 31, with comments from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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