Feds halt work on part of oil pipeline despite court ruling

Dakota Access oil pipeline protest
A man holds a ceremonial staff while protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline in front of the North Dakota state Capitol in Bismarck on Friday.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News

Updated: 5:47 p.m. | Posted: 11:44 a.m.

The federal government stepped into the fight over the Dakota Access oil pipeline Friday, ordering work to stop on one segment of the project in North Dakota and asking the Texas-based company building it to "voluntarily pause" action on a wider span that an American Indian tribe says holds sacred artifacts.

The government's order came minutes after a judge rejected a request by the Standing Rock Sioux to halt construction of the $3.8 billion, four-state pipeline.

Dakota Access oil pipeline protest
People hold banners in front of the Dakota Access oil pipeline protest while people speak in the background on Friday in Bismarck.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News

The tribe, whose cause has drawn thousands to join their protest, has challenged the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to grant permits at more than 200 water crossings for the pipeline. Tribal leaders allege it violates several federal laws and will harm water supplies. The tribe also alleges that ancient sites have been disturbed during construction.

The tribe's chair, Dave Archambault II, spoke at the North Dakota state Capitol in front of several hundred people, some carrying signs that read "Respect Our Water" and "Water Is Sacred." Archambault called the federal announcement "a beautiful start" and told reporters that the dispute is a long way from over.

"A public policy win is a lot stronger than a judicial win," he said. "Our message is heard."

Jessica Ferris of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, who joined a rally against the pipeline Friday afternoon in Bismarck, said she's especially concerned about the impact of the pipeline on future generations.

"It may not affect me today, but it's going to affect my grandkids, great grandkids down the road," she said. "When there's no water to drink what are they supposed to live on?"

A joint statement from the Army and the Departments of Justice and the Interior said construction bordering or under Lake Oahe would not go forward and asked the Texas-based pipeline builder, Energy Transfer Partners, to stop work 20 miles to the east and west of the lake while the government reconsiders "any of its previous decisions."

The statement also said the case "highlighted the need for a serious discussion" about nationwide reforms "with respect to considering tribes' views on these types of infrastructure projects."

Vicki Granado, a spokesperson for the company, said it had no comment.

Native Americans protest Dakota Access pipeline
In this Aug. 12, 2016, file photo, Native Americans protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in southern North Dakota.
James MacPherson | AP Photo File

The president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council said he was disappointed with the government's decision to intervene and called it "flagrant overreach" that will result in more oil being moved by trucks and trains.

The 1,172-mile project will carry nearly a half-million barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota's oil fields through South Dakota and Iowa to an existing pipeline in Patoka, Illinois.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington said in denying the tribe's request for a temporary injunction that the court "does not lightly countenance any depredation of lands that hold significance" to the tribe and that, given the federal government's history with the tribe, the court scrutinized the permitting process "with particular care."

Nonetheless, the judge wrote, the tribe "has not demonstrated that an injunction is warranted here."

Attorney Jan Hasselman with the environmental group Earthjustice, who filed the lawsuit on the tribe's behalf, said earlier this week any such decision would be challenged. "We will have to pursue our options with an appeal and hope that construction isn't completed while that (appeal) process is going forward," he said.

Tribal historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard said Boasberg's ruling gave her "a great amount of grief. My heart is hurting, but we will continue to stand, and we will look for other legal recourses."

Earlier in the day, thousands of protesters, many from tribes around the country, gathered near the reservation that straddles the North and South Dakota border.

Dakota Access oil pipeline protest
A boy holds a sign in the rain in front of the North Dakota state Capitol on Friday.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News

"There's never been a coming together of tribes like this," according to Judith LeBlanc, a member of the Caddo Nation in Oklahoma and director of the New York-based Native Organizers Alliance. People came from as far as New York and Alaska, some bringing their families and children, and hundreds of tribal flags dotted the camp, along with American flags flown upside-down in protest.

The judge's order was announced over a loudspeaker there. John Nelson of Portland, Ore., came to the camp to support his grandson, Archambault. The 82-year-old says he was not surprised by the ruling, "but it still hurts."

State authorities announced this week that law enforcement officers from across the state were being mobilized at the protest site, some National Guard members would work security at traffic checkpoints and another 100 would be on standby. The Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association asked the Justice Department to send monitors to the site because it said racial profiling is occurring.

Nearly 40 people have been arrested since the protest began in April, including tribal chairman Dave Archambault II.

A week ago, protesters and construction workers were injured when, according to tribal officials, workers bulldozed sites on private land that the tribe says in court documents are "of great historic and cultural significance." Energy Transfer Partners denied the allegations.

The state's Private Investigation and Security Board received complaints about the use of dogs and will look into whether the private security teams at the site are properly registered and licensed, board attorney Monte Rogneby said Friday, adding that he would not name the firms.

On Thursday, North Dakota's archaeologist said that piece of private land was not previously surveyed by the state would be surveyed next week and that if artifacts are found, pipeline work still could cease.

The company plans to complete the pipeline this year, and said in court papers that stopping the project would cost $1.4 billion the first year, mostly due to lost revenue in hauling crude.

A status conference in the tribe's lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 16.

MPR News' Dan Gunderson reported from Bismarck, and Associated Press journalists from Minneapolis and various locations in North Dakota.

Correction (Sept. 9, 2016): This story has been corrected to show that the opinion is 58 pages long, not one page with no explanation.

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