Tribal protesters against Dakota pipeline met with backlash

Minnesota state Representative Frank Hornstein speaking at a rally against the Dakota Access Pipeline in February. (Credit: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr)

In the days since the federal government ordered construction to stop on a portion of the Dakota Access pipeline last Friday, Native American protesters have faced distrust and even violence in a rural North Dakota community.

The protesters have gathered by the thousands to camp out alongside the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who say the pipeline – which travels through the tribe’s ancestral lands and passes within half a mile of its current reservation – will desecrate sacred land and pollute water. Tribal leaders also allege that the project violates several federal laws and that ancient sites have been disturbed during construction.

In the same rural Morton County community – population 30,000 and around 92 percent white – ranchers and other locals have little to do with the rally. But with their quiet communities disrupted by tedious police checkpoints and other closings in the area, some of these residents have begun to feel wary of their new neighbors and concerned about their safety.

“They have been somewhat threatened by this,” Bruce Strinden, a Morton County commissioner, told the New York Times. “These ranchers, it’s their livelihood. If somebody would come and set fire to their hay reserves and come and cut their fences and cause their livestock to get loose, that causes real problems.”

The protesters say the camp and protests are peaceful and pose no threat to anyone. But the situation quickly escalated into violence last week, when security guards working for the Dakota Access pipeline company were filmed using dogs and pepper spray against the protesters. Morton County later issued an arrest warrant for the reporter filming the scene, Amy Goodman, on grounds of criminal trespassing.

Throughout the commotion, and despite last week’s government-issued order, the company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners LP (ETP.N), has said it remains committed to the project. The company released a letter letter to its employees yesterday, according to Reuters, which dismissed worries of water contamination as “unfounded,” and said the pipeline would address other safety concerns.

“We are committed to completing construction and safely operating the Dakota Access Pipeline within the confines of the law,” Kelcy Warren, Energy Transfer Partners’ chairman and chief executive officer, wrote in the letter.

The letter did not address the federal request to temporarily stop construction, but did state that company officials would meet with government administrators.

Protesters across the country continue to call for an end to the pipeline’s construction. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a lawsuit in July against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which approved the permit for the pipeline. The suit claimed that the pipeline violates the National Historic Preservation Act and other laws. Last week a federal judge rejected the effort. According to the Associated Press, a status conference in the tribe’s lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 16.

When fully connected to existing lines, the pipeline will span 1,100 miles and cost $3.7 billion. Stopping the project now would cost $1.4 billion the first year, mostly due to lost revenue in hauling crude oil, the AP reported.

The pipeline would be the first to carry crude oil from the Bakken shale directly to the U.S. Gulf.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com