Yet another U.S. oil pipeline proposal is hanging in the balance, and this time it’s the Dakota Access Pipeline, also known as the Bakken Pipeline. It would stretch across 1,134 miles, starting at the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota, transporting 450,000 barrels (18,900,000 gallons) of crude oil per day, with a planned future capacity of 570,000 barrels per day. 30-inch wide pipes would take a southeast path through Native American ancestral territories in North and South Dakota and Iowa, eventually reaching Illinois. From Illinois the pipeline would connect to another pre-existing one with access to the Gulf of Mexico.
Last month, on April 1st, 60-plus members of the Great Sioux Nation rode on horseback for miles to set up a spirit camp by the mouth of the Cannonball River. The camp, called Iyan Wakanya Gagnapi Oti, or Sacred Stone Camp, was intentionally established right on the proposed path of the oil pipeline. They have vowed that the camp will stay there until the pipeline is stopped. Toward the end of April, they held a week long spirit relay run of over 500 miles from Cannon Ball, ND to Omaha, NE to deliver the message to the Army Corps that “we resist a pipeline crossing beneath sacred water needed for life”. There is also a powerful video of Native children from the region asking everyone to sign an online petition to stop the pipeline.
The Standing Rock Sioux, supported by other tribal citizens of the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires of the Great Sioux Nation), certain celebrities, and non-indigenous groups, are struggling for the complete rejection of this pipeline proposal, due to the historically inherent dangers of water and land contamination that come with such projects. They have already met with the Army Corps of Engineers to urge them to reassess the deep environmental risks at hand. The original route for the pipeline was reportedly changed from near Bismarck, ND because wealthier people there were concerned that a leak would pollute their drinking water. So the builder, Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, altered the route to go right through Native lands. The pipeline proposal is also in direct violation of Article 2 of the Ft. Laramie treaty of 1868, which ensured the “undisturbed use and occupation” of the Standing Rock Reservation lands. LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard, a member of the tribe, said, “It’s like the same old story with the government and the agencies and big oil. We don’t matter. They’re coming again. When will it stop? I’m not expendable. My Grandchildren are not expendable. We have to fight to live.”
The proposed route of the Dakota Access Pipeline would cross the Missouri River only a few hundred feet upstream from Standing Rock’s border. The Missouri River comprises the entire eastern border of the reservation, and is also the longest river in the country. If any oil leak were to occur here, not only would it decimate the river that provides drinking water for everyone on the reservation and surrounding areas, but would also wreak havoc on the medicinal and food plants used by the residents. Doug Crow Ghost, director of water resources for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, stated, “There are cottonwood stands along the Missouri and its tributaries, and buffalo berries, sage, and mouse bean that we use,” he said. “There are so many different ones. I couldn’t even begin to name them.” Bald eagles and piping plovers are just a couple of the native birds that nest in this area, and medicinal sweet grass and wild rice grow there as well.
The pipeline would be underground, which would decrease the ability to detect leaks or signs of potential failure. Nicole Montclair-Donaghy of the Lakota pointed out that “The more concerning threat is what this pipeline WILL do to the environment. All pipelines break at some point in their lifetime. Pipelines spill their contents. And in some cases, pipelines explode.” From January 2012-2014, North Dakota experienced over 300 oil spills and 750 “oil field incidents”, and many have not been publicly reported over the years. That’s just in one state alone. Oil corporations and oil pipeline companies have a bad track record all around the world of ignoring warnings, and sometimes even intentionally concealing information from regulators about failing and/or degrading infrastructure. This is done to avoid the high costs associated with replacing expensive equipment and/or miles of pipelines. These companies create most of their own regulations and assessments of the risk factors of their infrastructure, due to the inadequate amount of federal inspectors available. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has funding for only 137 national inspectors, and often employs even less than that (in 2010 the agency had 110 inspectors on staff).
Over a 30 year period, there has been an average of five significant incidents per week of pipeline spills in the United States. Oil companies present it like cleanup is no big deal if a little “spill” occurs. To quote Paul Peronard, EPA onsite coordinator with many years of experience in environmental disaster response, “We never -and I’ll be clear about that, we never recover all of the oil. Someone who tells you that is telling you stories. Good conditions, you get half of the oil that hits the water.”
When an oil spill occurs, the health effects on surrounding communities have historically been devastating. In a report by Paul Goldstein, Ph.D, Professor of Toxicology with American Medical Forensic Specialists, he underlined that “Crude oil is not readily biodegradable, and the effects of exposure to this toxin will be felt not only acutely, but from generation to generation. Children and pregnant mothers are at significant risk. All exposures, no matter how seemingly insignificant, may prove to be consequential. What may seem to be a relatively trivial exposure in a healthy individual may potentially prove catastrophic, and the consequences of both acute and chronic exposures to crude oil may take years, even decades, to fully reveal the array of disease and morbidity that will result from exposure to this substance.”
So what exactly happens to humans and other animals when they’re exposed to oil spills? Goldstein’s report explains, “Commonly reported effects from acute exposure to crude oil through inhalation and ingestion include difficulty breathing, headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion and other central nervous system effects. Brief skin contact can cause irritation of the skin and mucous membranes on contact. Irritant effects can range from a slight reddening of the skin to burning, swelling, pain and permanent skin damage.” Long-term exposure, however, which is what happens to communities who live on or near oil spill sites, is the most dangerous. The Utah Department of Health has reported that “Long-term exposure at relatively low levels (known as chronic exposure) should be avoided, if at all possible, due to the possibility of serious effects including lung, liver and kidney damage, infertility, immune system suppression, disruption of hormone levels, blood disorders, gene mutations and cancer.” They also added, “Pregnant women and the developing fetus are also at risk due to the fact that many of the chemicals in crude oil can cause skeletal deformities and incompletely formed immune and detoxification systems.”
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their many allies know the realities of what can happen to their families and neighbors if this pipeline gets built, and they are fighting not just for their own people, but for every living creature that is put at risk by the Dakota Access Pipeline. In a statement from the spirit camp organizers, “The threats this pipeline poses to the environment, human health and human rights are strikingly similar to those posed by the Keystone XL. We ask that everyone stands with us against this threat to our health, our culture, and our sovereignty. We ask that everyone who lives on or near the Missouri River and its tributaries, everyone who farms or ranches in the local area, and everyone who cares about clean air and clean drinking water stand with us against the Dakota Access Pipeline!”
In the words of Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, “They claim this mother of ours, the Earth, for their own use, and fence the neighbors away. If America had been twice the size it is, there still would not have been enough.” The tribal citizens and non-native allies who stand in solidarity with the Great Sioux Nation, who call their group “Chante tin’sa kinanzi Po” or “People, Stand with a Strong Heart!” say, “His way of life is our way of life—standing in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline is our duty.”
Written by Jenny Badkins