- Nanette Phillips
- An 11th-hour intervention has forestalled potential violence at Standing Rock.
In a sudden turnabout that few could have predicted, the Army Corps of Engineers announced on Sunday that it's halting construction of the highly controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, pending a full environmental impact review.
This last-minute development came in the wake of a weekend influx of more than 2,000 veterans to Standing Rock, where some 5,000 pipeline protesters have been camped out next to the Sioux reservation — many of them for months — in increasingly hazardous weather conditions.
The incoming veterans vowed to create a human chain around the encampments in order to shield protesters from a potentially violent forced eviction.
Concerns over violence were not unwarranted. Two weeks ago, an estimated 4,000 protesters faced off against police during an attempted march across a bridge to the pipeline construction site. Police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons, which were deployed in below-freezing conditions. A reported 300 protesters were injured, and one woman nearly lost an arm from a concussion grenade that police insist they did not fire.
Subsequent confrontations have proven more peaceful. Last week, I spent three days camping out with Standing Rock activists and joined them in a silent march to the same bridge. Halfway across, protesters met with a barrier of razor wire, cement blockades, riot police and an elevated "sound cannon." An aircraft circled the area, while a drone silently hovered above the crowd.
After a tense standoff, the large contingent of women leading the march signaled for their fellow protesters to turn around and return to camp. During the walk back, a heavy rain began falling, which then turned into a blizzard that would blanket the encampments in nearly two feet of snow.
While the pipeline was originally intended to run along the outskirts of Bismarck (a North Dakota town with 92 percent white population), that community's outcry over potential drinking water contamination prompted a sudden change of course. Energy Transfer Partners — whose investors have included President-elect Donald Trump — responded with a new plan to reroute the pipeline through Native American lands located more than 100 miles south of Bismarck. In addition to creating the same safety issues, tribal leaders say the new route would result in the desecration of sacred burial sites.
Now, tribal leaders and activists are treating this new development with guarded optimism.
"We hope that [Energy Transfer Partners CEO] Kelcy Warren, Governor [Jack] Dalrymple, and the incoming Trump administration respect this decision and understand the complex process that led us to this point," Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a Sunday statement. "Treaties are paramount law and must be respected, and we welcome dialogue on how to continue to honor that moving forward."
Energy Transfer Partners was quick to dismiss any compromise. "For more than three years now, Dakota Access Pipeline has done nothing but play by the rules," the company declared in a Sunday night press release. The company then vowed to "complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe."
House Speaker Paul Ryan — who has apparently caught Trump's feverish enthusiasm for issuing policy statements in 140 characters or less — also chimed in on Twitter, condemning the federal action as "big-government decision-making at its worst," while adding that he looks forward to "putting this anti-energy presidency behind us."
For an in-depth account of indigenous locals' participation in the Standing Rock protests, see Indy reporter Nat Stein's Nov. 23 cover story.