The Army Corps of Engineers said Sunday it will not approve an easement necessary to permit the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota, marking a monumental victory for the Native American tribes and thousands of others who have flocked in recent months to protest the oil pipeline.
“I’m happy as heck,” said Everett Iron Eyes, a retired director of natural resources for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and one of the organizers of a camp that protesters set up near the pipeline site. “All our prayers have been answered.”
Officials in November had delayed the key decision, saying more discussion was necessary about the proposed crossing given that it would pass very near the reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose leaders have repeatedly expressed fears that a spill could threaten the water supplies of its people.
“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do,” Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, said in a statement Sunday. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”
The decision averts a possible showdown Monday, the date the Army Corps, which owns land on either side of the lake, had set for cutting off access to the protesters’ camp. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, worried about violence, had sent mediators to the area over the weekend.
The victory for the Standing Rock Sioux and its allies could be short-lived, though. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to support pipelines such as this one. And Kelcy Warren, the chief executive of the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners, has been a major contributor to the Republican Party and Trump’s campaign. Trump, who owned a stake between $500,000 and $1 million in Energy Transfer Partners, has sold the shares, his spokeswoman Hope Hicks said.
Iron Eyes said that “we shall remain vigilant regardless. We have witnessed the power of being peaceful and prayerful.”
The announcement was greeted with guarded optimism among a contingent of Fort Lewis College students, faculty and staff members who had caravaned to North Dakota to support the Standing Rock Sioux’s opposition to the pipeline. “I think it is a victory, but a victory that must located in an ongoing movement for decolonizing the world, land and waters,” said Anthony J. Nocella, an FLC sociology professor. “We must understand that everyone would have been affected by the pipeline from farmers, ranchers, rafters, campers, hunters, fisher-people, and even U.S. based oil companies. We need to build alternative sustainable energy and move away from oil, coal, gas and nuclear power.”
FLC student Sabrina M. Quazza said the announcement was only “the beginning of more battles to come.” She added, “There are still many other pipelines that need to be stopped and prevented from being built, so we cannot stop fighting for clean water everywhere.”
What started as a small but fierce protest in a remote spot along the Missouri River months ago has evolved into an epic standoff involving hundreds of tribes, various celebrities and activists from around the country. It has involved heated confrontations – police have sometimes employed water cannons, pepper spray and rubber bullets – and has carried on through the swelter of summer into the snowy cold of winter. Hundreds of veterans arrived in recent days.
On Sunday, news of the decision triggered a wave of celebration and relief among those who have fought to stop the 1,170-mile-long pipeline’s progress.
A procession of tribal members and activists marched along the main dirt road at the Oceti Sakowin encampment set up by protesters. A crowd numbering in the thousands gathered around the camp’s sacred fire, the hub of activity here, as tribal elders sang prayer songs and beat drums.
Activists acknowledged that it was only one step forward in a larger fight over Native American rights.
Denise McKay, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux standing by the sacred fire Sunday afternoon, said she expects Energy Transfer Partners to push back on the decision.
“It is a temporary victory,” said McKay, 54. “We’ve got to stay put and stay united.” McKay’s daughter, Chelsea Summers, 25, said, “Everybody is still here for the long haul.”
Herald Staff Writer Jonathan Romeo contributed to this report.