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Federal court reviews tribe's request to halt Dakota pipeline

Federal court reviews tribe's request to halt Dakota pipeline
© Getty

Federal judges on Wednesday reviewed a tribal request to halt construction on a controversial pipeline project in North Dakota.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has asked the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to block construction on a stretch of the Dakota Access Pipeline while its lawsuit against the project moves forward.

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A three-judge panel on Wednesday probed both that request and the lengths to which the federal government worked to consult the tribe before approving the pipeline's route near its land.

The judges questioned whether the Army Corps of Engineers, which approved the project, allowed the tribe to influence the scope of their review, a critical step in the process for a pipeline project.

“The Corps invited the tribe to consult on the scope of this assessment,” federal lawyer James Maysonett said, defending the agency. “They obviously reached a fundamental disagreement quite quickly.”

Pipeline developers and federal regulators argue the tribe’s total opposition to the pipeline makes it hard to determine which areas along the route they should reassess.

The Army Corps this summer issued permits for the project to cross a lake in the region. But the Standing Rock Sioux say regulators should have extended their assessment to include land that includes historic or cultural artifacts important to the tribe.

That includes a stretch of land west of North Dakota’s Lake Oahe, the focal point in the legal fight over the pipeline. Jan Hasselman, the tribe’s lawyer, said they’re looking for a “very narrow injunction on an undeniably special place” to the tribe.

But judges questioned why the tribe didn’t participate in other early assessments of the project. They also questioned how much of the pipeline's path the tribe wants to reassess and whether they would need to issue a broader injunction to block construction all along it.

Wednesday’s hearing was the latest development in the fight over the $3.8 billion, 1,170-mile Dakota Access project.

A federal judge in September affirmed the government's approval process and blocked the tribe’s request to stop construction on the pipeline while the lawsuit moved forward.

But the same day, three federal agencies said they would hold off on issuing an easement to allow the pipeline to cross Lake Oahe while they reconsider whether their approval of the project properly considered environmental and treaty factors.

Construction on a small stretch of land around Lake Oahe has been paused pending the court’s decision. If the judges rule against the tribe’s injunction request, a Dakota Access lawyer said Wednesday, construction would restart, except for the area covered by the easement still held up by the federal agencies.