Here’s a good-governance aphorism for the ages: If you want to foster an atmosphere of trust and transparency—and if you truly have nothing to hide—then don’t hide stuff.
It’s such an obvious point. And yet it’s one that has somehow managed to elude the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
So what’s the Corps hiding? Its reassessment of the potential environmental impacts of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, or DAPL, ordered by a federal judge in 2017. (You probably recall the massive demonstrations and international outcry that took place beforehand.) Under the terms of the court order, the Corps was instructed to reexamine whether a leak in the pipeline would pose a disproportionately high risk to the Standing Rock Sioux’s “distinct cultural practices”—which, in this case, include the ability of its 8,000 members to obtain food and water from the Missouri River and Lake Oahe.
Two weeks ago, the Corps finally took a step toward compliance—albeit insufficiently and insultingly. It released a two-page memo summarizing its reassessment but refused to release the actual report on which the memo is based, citing an ongoing “confidentiality review.” And the gist of this memo? We looked at the whole thing again more closely, Your Honor, just like you told us to. And we stand by our earlier assessment: It’s all good.
That’s it. No publicly available backup, no explanatory details, no further justification provided. To the Standing Rock Sioux or anyone else concerned about the impact of an oil spill on the tribe’s sacred hunting and fishing grounds and the primary source of its drinking water, the memo offers nothing more than the evidence-free assurance that the Corps got it right the first time.
There are, of course, plenty of lingering questions—and even some new ones—regarding the safety of this 1,200-mile-long pipeline, which is now (thanks to President Trump) in operation and will soon be pumping more than half a million barrels of Bakken crude oil per day through four states.
The Standing Rock Sioux and a team of independent technical consultants—including some from NRDC—brought up many of these questions in a 300-page study submitted to the Corps last May. Their report casts doubt on several of the assertions made by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) regarding the company’s ability to respond to a rupture in its pipeline and the overall safety of its operations. For one thing, the authors point out that ETP and Sunoco (the energy logistics company that ETP purchased last year) incurred nearly 300 hazardous liquid pipeline incidents, resulting in more than $56 million in property damage, between 2006 and 2017. Amazingly, despite this shocking accident record, ETP’s and Sunoco’s “prior performance was not considered a valid risk assessment” by the Corps.
Among the authors’ other conclusions: Past analyses of DAPL failed “to effectively identify the specific hazards of Bakken crude oil,” an oversight that they say “leaves human health and the environment vulnerable to harm if not addressed.” They point out the elevated concentrations of toxic benzene and hydrogen sulfide in Bakken crude, as well as its higher flammability relative to other forms of crude oil, and fault the Corps for having failed to consider these factors in its earlier assessment.
Most damningly, perhaps, the authors suggest that the worst-case discharge scenario provided by ETP is actually a best-case scenario, and that it neglects to take into account the role that cold-weather extremes would necessarily play in any emergency response to a rupture or leak. Take a moment to picture North Dakota in wintertime.
So on one hand we have an exhaustively detailed, 300-page report spelling out all of the ways that this pipeline threatens the land and water relied on by the Standing Rock Sioux. And on the other hand there’s a two-page memo from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers basically stating: Yeah, nothing new to report here.
In response, Standing Rock Sioux leaders have accused the Corps of stonewalling. They’re wondering, naturally, why they and the general public have been denied access to the full report on which the memo is based. Immediately after the memo’s release, the tribe’s chairman, Mike Faith, Jr., issued a statement that portends a continued fight. “A federal judge declared the DAPL permits to be illegal, and ordered the Corps to take a fresh look at the risks of an oil spill and the impacts to the Tribe and its Treaty rights,” it reads. “That is not what the Army Corps did. Instead, we got a cynical and one-sided document designed to paper over mistakes, not address the Tribe’s legitimate concerns.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ job isn’t to protect ETP. But one of its jobs, indisputably, is to impartially analyze the costs and benefits of large-scale public works and other projects, and then to make certain—absolutely certain—that these projects, if approved, are carried out safely and within the bounds of the law. As it stands, we’re about as far from “absolutely certain” as we can be when it comes to the safety of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The questions have been asked. We’re still awaiting answers.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.