Oil and Water: An Investigative look into the Dakota Access Pipeline

A few days before Thanksgiving families across America were preparing to sit around their dining room tables to say what they were thankful for on a day that commemorates the colonization of America; but in Standing Rock, N.D. protesters, who call themselves water protectors, were facing freezing temperatures, water hoses, concussion grenades and tear gas while protecting the lands and water that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe hold sacred.

Over 100 indigenous tribes have convened in Cannon Ball, N.D. to protest the construction of a 1,172-mile pipeline funded by Dakota Access, LLC., a unit of Texas-based company named Energy Transfer Partners. The pipeline is planned to carry crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to southern Illinois. The proposed pipeline crosses land that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe considers sacred and threatens to contaminate the Missouri River which is the source of drinking water for thousands of people.

In July 2014, President Barack Obama gave a speech at the Standing Rock reservation in Cannon Ball, ND for a flag day celebration.

“I know that throughout history, the United States often didn’t give the nation-to-nation relationship the respect that it deserved,” said President Obama. “So I promised…to be a president who’d change that. A president who honors our sacred trust, and who respects your sovereignty and upholds treaty obligations, and who works with you in a spirit of true partnership and mutual respect to give our children the future that they deserve.”

The promise President Obama said he made at the Standing Rock Reservation was challenged when Dakota Access, LLC. filed an application for a pipeline route permits with various agencies.

North Dakota Public Service Commission for a 1,127-mile pipeline that would carry oil across four states.

The initial route for the pipeline was planned to pass Lake Ohae north of Bismark, N.D., according to a document obtained from North Dakota Public Service Commission. The initial route was changed after concerns were raised about the contamination of drinking water for Bismark citizens and the pipeline was rerouted to cross under Lake Ohae and under the Missouri River — just north of the Standing Rock Reservation.

“The company’s initial draft environmental assessment of Dec. 9, 2015 made no mention of the fact that the route they chose brings the pipeline near, and could jeopardize, the drinking water of the Tribe and its citizens,” a letter on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s website stated. “It actually omitted the very existence of the tribe on all maps and any analysis, in direct violation of the US environmental justice policies.”

Many people have speculated that the redirection of the pipeline’s route could be an act of environmental racism.

“Environmental racism entails policy decisions which lead to marginalized race groups having to bear a disproportionate burden of environmental costs,” explained Dr. Michael Lipscomb, a professor of political science at Winthrop University. “The argument would be that [institutions] believe that this marginalized population will have less leverage in terms of protesting the pipeline and preventing it from happening. They’re not positioned well politically to stop it.”

Because the new proposal for the pipeline crossed U.S. waterways the company had to obtain permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start construction at the site.

In accordance with the law established by section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the Army Corps of Engineers must first determine if projects they are considering undertaking may affect any historic properties.

If historic properties may be affected, the Army Corps of Engineers must inform the State Historic Preservation Officer or the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer responsible for the historic site for a consultation on the site.

The permitting process for the Dakota Access pipeline began when the United States Army Corps of Engineers sent a proposal letter to the Tribal Historical Preservation Office of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe giving them notice of the proposed pipeline and to solicit comments and concerns from the tribe about the pipeline.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s THPO responded to the Omaha District of the USACE in a letter obtained through a public documents search. The letteroutlined the historical sites alongside the proposed pipelines area and details the adverse effects that construction of the pipeline could have on these historical sites.

The tribe claimed the Dakota Access Pipeline would cross the reservation at the Cannonball Ranch and argues that the Cannonball Ranch is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places because there are six burials of noteworthy residents of Standing Rock on the site it also claims that nine sites located in the permitting area still need historical evaluation.

The tribal historic preservation officer also recommended monitoring of pre-assessment and pipeline construction by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s preferred contractor, Makoche Wowpai, for any historical findings.

After sending the USACE their initial concerns regarding the pipeline the THPO claim that they did not receive a response to letters sent to the United States Army Corps of Engineers on Feb. 18, 2015 and Feb. 25, 2015.

On April 8, 2015 the Tribal Historic Preservation Office sent additional correspondence to the regulatory chief of the USACE Omaha District, Martha Chieply, regarding concerns about the Dakota Access Pipeline Project.

The letter stated that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe objects to any bore testing on their lands because these areas are deemed sacred to their tribe and that they are recommending a full archaeological survey of the area before any mitigation regarding the site should take place.

It also notes that since the tribe’s last attempted correspondence with the USACE, bore testing had been completed and that there was an ongoing attempt at an environmental assessment before bore testing results were fully assessed and boring was done on private land to avoid section 106 consultations.

The letter also states that the tribe is aware that DAPL has been delayed in participating in bi-weekly conference calls with the USACE, that their office did not have any contact with tribal liaison, Joel Ames.

A preliminary injunction filed by lawyers of the Standing Rock Tribe claims that the next date of correspondence from the USACE was a letter asking the tribe if it would like to consult on the pipeline and requested a list of any sites it would like the USACE to consider for evaluation for historic sites.

“It has become clear that the Corps is attempting to circumvent the Section 106 process,” the injunction request stated.

In December 2015, the Army Corps of Engineers released a draft environmental impact statement which included details of the concerns of The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe but later notes in the Environmental Assessment that the Omaha District of the USACE assigned a “no historic properties affected” designation to the area despite concerns raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Almost a year later, on Oct. 17, 2016, the pipeline company discovered four stone cairns and other artifacts along the pipeline route, according to The Bismark Tribune. The company reported the finding to the State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO) on Oct. 27, 2017 and then rerouted the pipeline but neither the company or the SHPO contacted the North Dakota Public Service Commission about their finding for ten days following the discovery of the artifacts.

The chief archaeologist for North Dakota’s SHPO did not return a call for a comment on the discovery of the cairns.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe hasn’t been the only entity to voice its concerns about information in environmental assessments. The ACHA and the EPA both sent letters to the USACE outlining the shortcomings of the assessment. The EPA noted that the environmental assessment did not provide a large enough scope of the project and also said that it, “lacked significant analysis on direct and indirect impacts on water sources.”

The ACHA also found discrepancies with the scope of the environmental assessment’s compliance with section 106 of the national historical preservation act.

Despite letters stating concerns regarding the project from the EPA and other federal agencies, the USACE concluded that they had satisfied the requirements of the environmental assessment and their section 106 compliance.

The USACE approved three easements for water crossings for the pipeline at Sakakawea, the Mississippi River and Lake Oahe.

Since the approval of the pipeline, thousands of protesters have occupied land at camps surrounding the pipeline’s construction site, like Camp Oceti Sakowin, to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The Oceti Sakowin camp has been home to an estimated 3,000 protesters since construction began on the site. Protestors at the camp have been engaged in direction actions and protests to hinder construction of the pipeline by marching, latching themselves to construction equipment and confronting police.


Recent clashes at the site have turned violent as protesters have been met by Dakota Access security and local law enforcement who have fired rubber bullets, deployed chemical crowd control agents, concussion grenades and sprayed protesters with water hoses in freezing temperatures which sent 17 protestors to the hospital according to protest organizers.

Despite protesters’ continuous efforts to protect the land of the Sioux tribe, construction began and on September 3rd, the Dakota Access construction team plowed a two-mile-long trench on land that was waiting for review by the State Historical Preservation Officer.

The Standing Rock Sioux Indian Tribe claimed that the land had been plowed through was a burial ground considered sacred by their tribe and was spoken about in the lawsuit they filed against Dakota Access, LLC.

On September 9, Judge James Boasberg decided to rule against the injunction request made by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe which requested construction of the pipeline to be stopped.

Despite the ruling by the federal judge, The Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior released a joint statement acknowledging the opinion of the court but refusing to continue the authorization of the construction near the Lake Ohae area until further consultation was done with Native American Tribes.

Energy Transfer Partners Chairman and CEO, Kelcy Warren issued a statement to employees of the company assuring them that Energy Transfer Partners was committed to finishing the construction of the pipeline which the company has spent over $1 billion dollars on equipment for.

Despite concluding their investigation, the Department of Interior and Army Corps of Engineers released a joint statement delaying the pipeline further citing a further need for more consultation with Native American tribes on the project.

“While these discussions are ongoing, construction on or under Corps land bordering Lake Oahe cannot occur because the Army has not made a final decision on whether to grant an easement. The Army will work with the Tribe on a timeline that allows for robust discussion and analysis to be completed expeditiously,” the statement said.

Although the Army Corps of Engineers blocked construction on lands within federal jurisdiction, Energy Transfer Partners announced that they had built the pipeline up to Lake Ohae, reaffirming their commitment to complete the pipeline.

On Nov. 2, 2016, President Obama stated that the Army Corps of Engineers was considering a re-reoute of the pipeline but Energy Transfer Partners denied that claim, stating that they were unwilling to reroute the pipeline.

Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers sent a letter to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe noting that they had decided to not grant easements for Dakota Access construction under the Lake Oahe which cancels the route of the pipeline through the Standing Rock Reservation and noted that would like a environmental impact statement prepared for the construction of the pipeline which would explore alternate routes for the pipeline.

Despite celebrations on the day of the announcement, protesters at Standing Rock said they are wary of the decision and have decided to stay at their camps until the Dakota Access Pipeline and construction equipment is removed.