Standing with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe

As someone who regularly appears on television to discuss the day’s top stories, I’ve been fielding calls lately to give my thoughts on Secretary Clinton’s health, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE’s health, Secretary Clinton’s foundation, Donald Trump’s foundation, and so on. Yet, I have not received a single call from the media asking about the most important and quintessentially American story that is playing out on the banks of the Missouri River in North Dakota right now.

About an hour south of Bismarck, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters have faced violence and intimidation as they protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a nearly 1,200-mile crude oil pipeline that will plunge directly under Lake Oahe, the tribe’s main water source, and through sacred burial grounds.

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A federal judge on Friday denied the tribe’s request for a temporary injunction to stop construction. U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg, while acknowledging that “the United States’ relationship with the Indian tribes has been contentious and tragic,” ruled that the tribe failed to show that it will be harmed by the construction. This despite claims from the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that areas of cultural and historical significance will be destroyed.

Later that same day, the Department of Justice, Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior halted construction saying “this case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”

This fall, the DOJ, DOA, and DOI will invite tribes to formal government-to-government consultations on how the federal government can better ensure meaningful tribal input on infrastructure projects.

It is about time.

In my terms as Congressman and Governor from New Mexico (where just over 10% of our population is Native American) and during my tenure as Secretary of Energy and U.S. Ambassador at the United Nations, I supported and strengthened government-to-government relations with Native American tribes.

As Governor of New Mexico, I elevated the Office of Indian Affairs to the Indian Affairs Department, making New Mexico the only state in the nation with a cabinet-level Indian Affairs division. I had planned to take similar action at a federal level had I been elected President of the United States.

I signed into law the State-Tribal Collaboration Act to promote and strengthen the relationship between the state and the 22 sovereign tribes and pueblos in New Mexico. The act required cabinet-level agencies to develop policies that promote communication and cooperation between the state and tribal governments and required each state agency to designate a tribal liaison.

While the move by the administration to involve Native Americans in communication and planning on infrastructure projects is commendable, it is also too little too late for the Sioux in North Dakota.

After all, the halt is only temporary. The matter has been referred back to the Army Corps of Engineers to review its river crossing permit. It only pauses work within a 20-mile radius of Lake Oahe, which will soon be the last missing link with few alternative options now that it is too late for a major reroute. The pipeline is already half-built.

Now we are left to put the cart in front of the horse. That said, there are four steps that can be taken to help level the playing field even at this late stage.

  1. Construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline should be stopped until the project has the appropriate permits. The Corps used a nationwide permit instead of an individual permit. Nationwide permits are for small projects not worthy of individual scrutiny, not massive infrastructure projects, such as this one that crosses 4 states and is just 7 miles shorter than the proposed controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. The Corps also allowed for segmenting of the project by accepting segmented project review. The Dakota Access project then became four intrastate pipelines instead of an interstate pipeline requiring federal review. This is a clear violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

  1. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) should undertake a review of the entire project. Yes, much is built already, but the permit for the Sioux land should be made in the context of the whole project. When Dakota Access initially applied to FERC, they submitted as one project, not the four segments the Corps has allowed.

  1. The Council for Environment Quality that enforces NEPA should require an Environment Impact Statement (EIS) to assess the full threat to the tribe’s water source and any other potentially harmful effects to tribal land. The DOJ, DOI, and Council on Historic Preservation all petitioned the Corps to do an EIS, instead of an Environmental Assessment (EA), which is much less detailed and meant for small projects. The Corps did an EA.

  1. Cultural surveys should be completed with input from the tribes affected. Out-of-state surveyors hired by Dakota Access do not have the knowledge nor inclination to protect tribal interests. The tribes have the right to repatriation for human remains and cultural artifacts on private land, so even if the pipeline project is allowed to proceed, the Sioux must be given adequate time to protect their history from a literal bulldozing.

All of these things should be done now and with the full involvement of the Standing Rock Sioux tribal government.

It took an unprecedented level of protest to finally get the attention of federal agencies. I fear they are hoping it will all just cool down and that no substantive action will be taken. This is pacification, which is all too familiar to Native Americans.

Bill Richardson is a former Congressman, Ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. Energy Secretary, and Governor for the State of New Mexico. He founded the Richardson Center for Global Engagement in 2011 to promote global peace and dialogue by identifying and working on areas of opportunity for engagement and citizen diplomacy with countries and communities not usually open to more formal diplomatic channels.


 

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