In Landmark Victory for Indigenous Communities, Dakota Access Pipeline Ordered to Shut Down

The dangerous crude oil pipeline threatened the water supplies and way of life for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The win underscores the power of dogged defense by Indigenous groups and conservationists, as well as the importance of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Water protectors on the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, 2016

Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

In a stunning defeat of the dangerous Dakota Access Pipeline, a district court ruled that it must be shut down by August 5, citing an illegally insufficient environmental review. The decision is a hard-won victory for Indigenous communities, particularly the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, who have been working for years to protect their water supplies from the crude oil pipeline.

“Today is a historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux and the many people who have supported us in the fight against the pipeline,” said Standing Rock Sioux tribe chairman Mike Faith in a statement. “This pipeline should have never been built here. We told them that from the beginning.”

Earlier this year, a federal court found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had failed to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—which mandates thorough, scientific reviews of large infrastructure projects like pipelines and ensures that impacted communities are a part of the approval process—when issuing a critical federal permit. Yesterday’s decision concluded that the permit fell so far short of NEPA guidelines that the pipeline cannot operate until it submits a more thorough environmental impact statement. The decision once again underscores the importance of NEPA, which the Trump administration is in the process of gutting. If the administration gets its way, shortsighted projects would be approved with little oversight and the public’s ability to speak out for their communities would be diminished.

The controversial pipeline has been operating for about three years, transporting nearly half a million barrels of crude oil per day from western North Dakota, under the Missouri River, through South Dakota and Iowa, and to the Patoka Oil Terminal in Illinois. Most significantly, its route crosses under Lake Oahe, a reservoir along the Missouri River, a quarter-mile away from the Standing Rock Reservation. A leak or spill would devastate the local ecosystem that provides fish and wildlife, as well as drinking water supplies, for the tribal communities.

The proximity to the reservation has drawn widespread, ongoing outcry from Indigenous rights groups and environmental activists. The latest ruling is in response to a high-profile, years-long lawsuit brought by the Standing Rock Sioux (represented by Earthjustice) and the Cheyenne River Sioux against the federal government.

“The principles of environmental justice emphasize the need to be especially vigilant when low-income communities are impacted or when, as here, pipelines are allowed to pose risks to tribal communities that have treaties with the United States to protect their remaining tribal lands,” said NRDC senior scientist Jennifer Sass in a March 2020 blog.

According to the Army Corps, the revised environmental impact statement will likely not be ready until 2021, which means approval of the new set of permits may be up to the next administration.

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