The federal ruling "validates everything the Tribe has been saying all along about the risk of oil spills to the people of Standing Rock."
A Washington DC court handed down Wednesday a major victory for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota, ruling that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by approving federal permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
The court granted a request by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which had petitioned to nullify federal permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline on grounds that the USACE violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it issued permits in 2016 without conducting adequate environmental reviews.
The Standing Rock Sioux had raised concerns regarding the likelihood and danger of potential oil spills, DAPL's leak-detection system, and the safety record of Sunoco Logistics, the company behind the pipeline.
Sunoco "has experienced 276 incidents resulting in over US$53 million in property damage from 2006 to 2016" and has "one of the lowest-performing safety records of any operator in the industry," the tribe's experts found.
However, despite the warning, USACE allowed the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) crossing the Missouri River after President Donald Trump assumed office in 2017, which led the tribe to enter a struggle that mainly demanded the closure of the pipeline.
In his ruling on Wednesday, the federal judge James Boasberg said the environmental measures taken into account by both the companies behind the pipeline and the USACE were severely lacking.
“This court ultimately concludes that too many questions remain unanswered. Unrebutted expert critiques regarding leak-detection systems, operator safety records, adverse conditions, and worst-case discharge mean that the easement approval remains ‘highly controversial’ under NEPA,” the court ruling said.
Now, USACE will be required to prepare a full environmental impact study (EIS) of the pipeline, after the judge also specifically identified that the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty reserves the Great Sioux Nation’s right to hunt and fish in treaty territory.
So that, the EIS should also include full consideration of concerns presented by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, treaties and reserved rights in the treaties, the judge ruled.
The federal ruling "validates everything the Tribe has been saying all along about the risk of oil spills to the people of Standing Rock," said Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman in a statement. "We will continue to see this through until DAPL has finally been shut down," he added.
"After years of commitment to defending our water and earth, we welcome this news of a significant legal win," said Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Mike Faith.
"It's humbling to see how actions we took four years ago to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices ultimately affect this planet. Perhaps in the wake of this court ruling, the federal government will begin to catch on, too, starting by actually listening to us when we voice our concerns."
In December 2016, the Obama administration denied permits for the pipeline to cross the Missouri river and ordered a full EIS to analyze alternative routes and the impact on the tribe’s treaty rights.
However, in his first week in office, Donald Trump signed an executive order to expedite construction. Construction of the 1,200-mile pipeline was completed in June 2017.
After this tribe victory, it only remains to wait and monitor the course that the EIS will take which, being a deeper study, could take a few years.
Meanwhile, the ruling is a huge victory for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which gained international attention in 2016, when thousands of water defenders gathered at camps in North Dakota, facing a highly militarized police force armed with tanks, riot gear, rubber bullets, and other weapons.