Standing Rock 2020 Update

Tara C. Trapani

This year finally saw some hope in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and Energy Transfer Partners (the company who owns the controlling interest in DAPL).  

Here's  brief recap of the history of the fight against the pipeline. In early 2016, construction permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) were approved, which would allow it to go right through Sioux lands and directly under Lake Oahe, whose shores are home to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Deep concerns were raised by the Sioux regarding the environmental impact of this pipeline and legal battles began to try to stop it.  

In April 2016, a tribal Sioux elder set up a base at Sacred Stone Camp, located within the Standing Rock Indian Reservation (the birthplace of Sitting Bull), and in the subsequent months was joined by many thousands who came to support the cause and the Sioux position as water protectors and land defenders. There were multiple incidents of violence against the protestors in autumn 2016. After widespread national protests on November 15, President Barack Obama announced plans to explore alternate routes for the pipeline with the Army Corps of Engineers that would avoid the construction under and around Lake Oahe. But only four days after his inauguration, Donald Trump greenlighted the project and the easement was granted for construction under Lake Oahe. DAPL was completed in April 2017 and has been in operation ever since.

In addition to the grave environmental concerns, the construction and operation of the pipeline led to a spike in crime against the Indigenous peoples in the area by the transient workers. The promised jobs never materialized for the Indigenous in the area. We'll never know the full extent of the archaeological impact. After important sites were bulldozed in September 2016, the archaeological community nationwide issued a statement in support of the Sioux. As of early 2018, the pipeline had already leaked at least 5 times in four different states. From 2012-2020, there have been 349 leaks and spills in pipelines owned by Energy Transfer Partners, 35 of which caused contamination to the area water supply. Many feel it is only a matter of time before there is a leak in the vicinity of Lake Oahe. Tribal lawyers have continued to fight against the pipeline in court, first to appeal the easement and later to have it shutdown, all to no avail.

Which leads us to 2020. In the midst of a global pandemic and worldwide suffering, the Sioux and all who support them were given a glimmer of hope. In March of this year, a United States District Judge determined that the original Environmental Impact Survey (EIS) performed by the Army Corps of Engineers was woefully insufficient and this negligence had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). He ordered them to complete a thorough new study. In July, the same judge ordered a temporary shutdown of the pipeline until the EIS was completed. The Sioux, who had been fighting for this outcome for 4 years, finally had something to celebrate. The judge stated that “the Court agrees that they [the Army Corps of Engineers] did not adequately consider the impacts of an oil spill on fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice…” Sadly, just a few weeks later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned this ruling, and the shutdown was canceled.

But there is still hope. Energy Transfer Partners had also appealed the new EIS, but the court denied that motion, so the Environmental Impact Study will continue. We can only hope that the results of this study (which will likely take 1-3 years to complete) will clearly demonstrate the grave dangers to Indigenous land and water. Many hope the new, incoming White House administration will be receptive and supportive of efforts to shut down the pipeline, at least until the EIS is completed. Though Biden has taken no public position on DAPL, his Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris, has declared that she is against it. Only time will tell what happens next, but for the first time in several years, there is indeed cause for hope.


For additional background on the Standing Rock protests and the fight to protect Indigenous land, go to the Standing Rock Sioux site, see this 2016 interview with Forum co-founder and co-director, John Grim, and view the TED talk below, featuring tribal attorney and Couchiching First Nation citizen, Tara Houska.