Standing Rock: Gross Underestimates of DAPL Expansion Risks

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) since the historic protests that happened during its construction in 2016. Though President Obama halted construction in late 2016, President Trump lifted the hold as soon as he took office. The pipeline has now been operating for nearly 3 years, despite violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) through its environmental assessment and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) through the destruction of cultural resources during its construction. 

As those violations continue to be investigated, the North Dakota Public Service Commission (NDPSC) is now considering—and set to approve—a massive expansion in the volume of Bakken crude oil carried through the pipeline, despite opposition—both legal and scientific—from the Tribe. Serious safety concerns previously documented by the Tribe were based on the pipeline transporting approximately 500 thousand barrels per day of Bakken crude. Now, an expansion is proposed that would double that volume, to 1.1 million barrels per day (over 46 million gallons/day) moving at increased pressure and higher speed (about 15 feet per second), making an oil spill more likely, and a timely and effective response near-impossible.

A 2015 Sunoco Pipeline draft Facility Response Plan, buried in the company public submissions, recently identified during the ongoing NDPSC proceedings, makes clear that when calculating a worse case discharge, the company understands that doubling the maximum flow rate (the maximum daily capacity of the pipeline) will double the size of a potential oil spill. This makes sense—more crude in the pipe means more to spill out (see Section 6.0, p 38). Yet, in its public documents and testimony to NDPSC, the company that owns and operates the pipeline, Energy Transfer, disregarded the added risks that come with its current proposal to double the carrying capacity of the pipeline.

Moreover, although the company has developed worse case discharge estimates (they are gross underestimates) for various points along the pipeline’s 1000-plus mile route, it has not publicly disclosed its assessment of the high-risk areas where it passes under the Missouri River and a spill would directly contaminate Tribal land and resources.

This outrageous failure to share accurate relevant information prevents the Tribe from developing an accurate spill response plan, and thus undermines the public safety of Tribal members and others in harm’s way. See legal and technical details in the Pre-Hearing Brief filed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to the NDPSC on November 8th 2019.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has continued to place itself in the forefront of the struggle to protect water, land, wildlife, and people from what many people—including us—think is inevitable, a pipeline spill.

A pipeline spill seems inevitable because Energy Transfer and its Sunoco pipeline subsidiary which own and operate the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) have an infamously bad safety record. An analysis by Reuters of publicly available records from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) reported that, “Energy Transfer’s Sunoco unit ranked third worst among all pipeline companies in average annual incidents between 2010 and 2017, according to the PHMSA data. In total, Energy Transfer and its affiliated companies released more than 41,000 barrels of hazardous liquids causing more than $100 million in property damage”.

The Standing Rock Tribe would be harmed by a spill along its northern border because the DAPL pipeline travels underground near the community of Cannon Ball and under Lake Oahe which provides the Tribe with drinking water and food sources including fish, fowl and other wildlife. A spill coming up from beneath the riverbed into these waterways would be hard to detect, hard to stop, and hard to clean up. 

In a public statement, Standing Rock EPA Director Allyson Two Bears states “because the worst case discharge cannot be publicly scrutinized, Energy Transfer’s failure to meet the minimum compliance of federal regulations remains hidden, even by agencies such as the NDPSC.” The Tribe notes that, “providing the worst case publicly for other locations of DAPL (although buried in the NDPSC docket) and other major pipelines while hiding this information for Lake Oahe that threatens the SRST is an environmental injustice.”

Mike Faith, Jr., Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, issued this statement: “The Corps has conducted a sham process to arrive at a sham conclusion, for the second time. The Dakota Access Pipeline represents a clear and present danger to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its people, and we will continue to fight until the Corps complies with the law.”

When DAPL was first proposed, senior officials at three federal government agencies raised serious concerns about the pipeline—the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Department of Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation all noted red flags with the pipeline. However, the Army Corps of Engineers still approved the project based on an incomplete and faulty environmental assessment done by the pipeline operator, Dakota Access LLC.

The Natural Resources Defense Council stood in solidarity with Standing Rock during the 2016 protests, and continues to do so as the Tribe seeks justice while also confronting this new threat. The Standing Rock Tribe is represented in court by Earthjustice. See updates here.

About the Authors

Dan West

Senior Advocate, Government Affairs

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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