The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has withdrawn as a cooperating agency from the U.S Federal government’s ongoing environmental assessment of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) operations.
Standing Rock attributed their decision to the lack of transparency by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who are conducting the court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement for the pipeline in the area, as well as Energy Transfer’s, the pipeline operator, refusal to engage with tribe. According to tribal leaders, Standing Rock’s Tribal Emergency Response Commission (TERC) has yet to see the entire copy of the pipeline’s emergency plan in case a crude oil spill occurs.
“The Corps has failed to provide the Standing Rock TERC the most recent, unredacted response plans,” states Doug Crow Ghost, Administrator of the Tribe’s Water Resources Department. “Coordination and transparency with the TERC have been non-existent.”
In 2016 and 2017, Standing Rock was among thousands of tribes and protestors that opposed the Dakota Access pipeline. After the tribe legally challenged the construction of the pipeline at Lake Oahe citing water safety, Federal District Court Judge James Boasberg ordered that a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Study be conducted. He ruled that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) required it as a result of the controversy surrounding the pipeline.
The pipeline is planned to run from North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, going through South Dakota and Iowa. While the pipeline does not pass through the Standing Rock reservation, it passes under the nearby Lake Oahe, which is the tribe’s only source of freshwater. With the potential of a negative impact, the tribe became a cooperating agency invited to assist the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to produce the new EIS for the pipeline.
An emergency response to protect Lake Oahe
As a cooperating agency, Standing Rock was authorized to develop or enforce environmental standards and comment on environmental impact statements within their jurisdiction, expertise or authority.
According to the NEPA, lead agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, has the ultimate responsibility for the content of the EIS. However, it is supposed to use the environmental analysis and recommendations of cooperating agencies to the maximum extent possible, consistent with its own responsibilities as lead agency.
If the lead agency leaves out a significant issue or ignores the advice and expertise of the cooperating agency, the EIS may be later found to be inadequate.
Although Standing Rock is not privy to Energy Transfer’s entire oil spill emergency plan, the review of the ones made available to them are deemed infeasible. According to Crow Ghost, Energy Transfer’s emergency plans for an oil spill fails to take into consideration the lake’s frequently fluctuating water levels.
“Lake Oahe’s elevation is 12 feet [3.6 meters] below what it was two years ago today, but the Corps continues to release water at Oahe as if it is business as usual,” said Crow Ghost.
The Corps uses the Oahe’s outlet dam tunnels as a way to control flooding in the Missouri river, resulting in fluctuating water levels in the lake.
“The prospect of an oil spill during such low water is truly scary,” Crow Ghost says. Don Holmstrom, a former Director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s Denver office, now serving as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s emergency planning consultant, notes that existing plans are inconsistent with the company’s own spill model.
“Spill response under adverse conditions such as a low Lake Oahe water level or the harsh winter environment of North Dakota, including an oil spill under ice, are seriously lacking,” he said.
Holmstrom also believes that the Energy Transfer’s worst-case scenario understates how big an oil spill might potentially be. Should an oil spill occur, the tribe’s only source of water will be polluted and negatively affect fish, such as the endangered pallid sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus).
Tribal leaders say that a leak from the pipeline could also threaten tribal cultural sites along the Missouri River — a concern that Standing Rock raised in legal filings against DAPL.
Tribal leaders expressed concern that Energy Transfer would not be able to get the equipment needed to contain a spill onto ice and into the water at lake Oahe at the designated location.
“Roads leading to the river and most access points on the reservation in the vicinity of the pipeline are not usable at the present time,” says Crow Ghost.
Janet Alkire, the newly elected Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairperson, says that to ensure the safety of Standing Rock’s Tribal members, the Army Corps must raise Lake Oahe to safe levels or shut down the Dakota Access pipeline immediately.
“Our way of life at Standing Rock relies on our water, and we have to protect it.”
Mongabay reached out to the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and Energy Transfer for a comment but did not receive a response.