After months of legal wrangling and high-profile protests in an effort to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, drilling has begun under North Dakota’s Lake Oahe, part of the Missouri River system and the location of the last unfinished segment of the pipeline. Spirited resistance by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its allies galvanized an international movement that in December of last year secured an important but ultimately fleeting victory: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers paused the project, calling for an environmental impact statement (EIS) that considered the tribe’s treaty rights, as well as its concerns about the destruction of its sacred cultural sites and the potential contamination of its water supply.
The agency’s abrupt reversal on February 7, when it granted the easement to drill, has not only made the tribe’s and environmental activists’ victory short lived; it has served as a warning: the outright disregard for due process and swift dismantling of environmental protections that the Army Corps’ reversal represents has raised concerns that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump will be beholden to the fossil fuel industry and impervious to the concerns of indigenous and environmental rights.
The $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile pipeline, which is slated to transport crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale fields to a refinery in southern Illinois, was initially meant to pass near Bismarck, the predominantly white and affluent capital of North Dakota. But in response to local opposition and concerns about contamination of the city’s water supply, the pipeline was rerouted to cross within a mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation's northern boundary—transferring the risks of a leak from Bismarck to the relatively impoverished and almost exclusively indigenous reservation community. This situation echoes that in Flint, Michigan, where it was a poor African American town that was subjected to toxic levels of lead in its drinking water. This would not have been tolerated by a community that commands more political power.
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