Judge hears tribe's argument against ND pipeline

Opponents of a major North Dakota pipeline project brought their case to federal court Wednesday. 

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe told a federal district judge that the government didn’t consult the tribe before approving a route for the pipeline of energy company Dakota Access, which is to run close to sacred and environmental sites in North Dakota.

ADVERTISEMENT

They worry a breach in the pipeline will imperil the Missouri River, which runs near the project.  

The tribe last month sued the Army Corps of Engineers, which approved the pipeline route. On Wednesday, lawyers for the tribe asked District Judge James Boasberg to block construction on the project until the tribe can conduct more assessments of its route.

“The law gives the tribes the opportunity to go out and evaluate the impact on important sites,” Jan Hasselmen, the Earthjustice lawyer representing the tribes, said. “The tribe and other tribes are concerned about impacts all along the length of the pipeline.”

Federal attorneys dismissed the complaint, saying they offered the Standing Rock Sioux the chance to assess the pipeline with them and that the tribe declined, while other tribes in the region took them up on the offer. 

“The Corps followed procedure in this case when it actively worked to engage with the plaintiffs, the Standing Rock Sioux,” said federal lawyer Matthew Marinelli. 

Dakota Access said it has taken steps to avoid damaging culturally important areas in the region. The company’s attorney, William Leone, told the court, “This is not a cowboy process.”

Early construction on the pipeline route is mostly complete in North Dakota, and the focal point of Wednesday’s hearing was on its route under the Lake Oahe segment of the Missouri River. 

Dakota Access can’t begin clearing space for the pipeline there until after an easement is cleared by federal regulators and is submitted to Congress, so issuing an injunction against the construction isn’t immediately urgent. Boasberg said he will try to decide the case within two weeks.  

The 1,170-mile, $3.7 billion Dakota Access project would carry 570,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. Tribal groups have waged legal battles against the pipeline for months, and the project has drawn protests from tribes in North Dakota and anti-pipeline activists around the country. 

Wednesday’s hearing was preceded by a rally outside the federal district court building in Washington, D.C., with tribal representatives and allies slamming federal energy policies that they say minimize tribal input. The protest drew celebrity activists like actresses Susan Sarandon and Shailene Woodley.   

In North Dakota, protests against Dakota Access have landed up to 20 people in jail. Construction on the pipeline has stopped, and a federal judge in North Dakota has issued a restraining order against protesters at the site.

He will hear arguments on issuing an injunction against the protests in early September.