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News Release

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

Newly elected Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairperson Janet Alkire is calling upon the Army Corps of Engineers to take immediate measures to prevent disaster, should the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) leak under Lake Oahe, the tribe’s sole source of fresh drinking water.

Low water levels at the lake, caused by what Alkire calls “misplaced priorities in the operation of Oahe and the other dams on the Missouri River” could render the Dakota Access pipeline’s emergency plans for spill cleanup infeasible. “If an oil spill were to occur today, the plans submitted for remediation at Lake Oahe probably couldn’t be implemented,” she says. “Equipment required for the containment of a spill, even if deployed in a timely manner, could not reach the response zone.”

Doug Crow Ghost, Administrator of the tribe’s Water Resources Department, says that emergency plans he’s seen to address a potential spill by Dakota access fail to take into account the lake’s significantly fluctuating water levels. “Lake Oahe’s elevation is 12 feet below what it was two years ago today, but the Corps continues to release water at Oahe as if it is business as usual,” Crow Ghost says.

The response zone for an oil spill is almost entirely within the Standing Rock Reservation. Tribal leaders expressed concern that the Dakota Access pipeline’s operator, Energy Transfer, would not be able to get the equipment needed to contain such a spill onto the ice and into the water at Lake Oahe at the designated location. “Roads leading to the river and most access points on the reservation in the vicinity of the pipeline are not usable at the present time,” says Crow Ghost.

Don Holmstrom is a retired Director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s Denver office, now serving as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s emergency planning consultant. According to Holstrom, Energy Transfer’s existing oil spill response plans are woefully inadequate. “As the tribe’s technical reports have detailed, existing plans are inconsistent with Energy Transfer’s own spill model, which seriously impairs effective oil spill mitigation,” Holmstrom says. “Spill response under adverse conditions such as a low Lake Oahe water level or the harsh winter environment of North Dakota, including an oil spill under ice, are seriously lacking.”

Standing Rock leaders say that a failure to cooperate with the tribe by Energy Transfer has only exacerbated the danger. According to Holmstrom, Standing Rock’s Tribal Emergency Response Commission (TERC) has never seen a full copy of the pipeline’s current emergency plan. “The Corps has failed to provide the Standing Rock TERC the most recent, unredacted response plans. Coordination and transparency with the TERC have been non-existent,” he says.

That lack of transparency prompted the tribe to recently withdraw as a cooperating agency in the process to produce the Dakota Access pipeline’s new court-ordered Environmental Impact Study (EIS). “All these flaws weaken an effective oil spill response and place emergency responders and tribal members in harm’s way,” Holmstrom says.

According to tribal leadership, with water levels this low, a leak from the Dakota Access pipeline could also threaten tribal cultural sites along the Missouri River — a concern that Standing Rock raised early on in its legal filings against the Dakota Access pipeline.

But it is the low water level at Lake Oahe, and the inability to clean up an oil spill if it occurs, that most concerns tribal leaders. “The prospect of an oil spill during such low water is truly scary,” Crow Ghost says.

Holmstrom emphasized the need for an accurate estimate of the amount of oil that could spill into the Missouri River. “Energy Transfer’s worst case discharge calculations are grossly understated,” he says.

The consideration of the worst case scenario for pipeline discharge into Lake Oahe and the Missouri River has been a point of major contention throughout Standing Rock’s legal battle to shut the Dakota Access pipeline down. In April 2020, Federal District Court Judge James Boasberg cited the dispute over the Dakota Access pipeline’s worst case discharge as part of his decision to require the Army Corps of Engineers to prepare a new Environmental Impact Study for the pipeline. 

The Environmental Impact Study, currently underway, also takes into account a significant increase in the Dakota Access pipeline’s capacity, approved by the North Dakota Public Service Commission in February of 2020. That decision, however, has recently been the subject of other legal challenges. A ruling two weeks ago by the Illinois Court of Appeals reversed that state’s approval of the increased capacity expansion.

Holmstrom also cites the Corps’ failure to address the elevated hazards of the Bakken crude the Dakota Access pipeline carries, as described by the U.S. National Response Team from recent spill incidents. “There are many unresolved issues, but the oil continues to flow,” he says.

Alkire contends that it’s down to two options to ensure the safety of Standing Rock’s tribal members. “The Army Corps must raise Lake Oahe to safe levels or shut down the Dakota Access pipeline immediately” she says. “Our way of life at Standing Rock relies on our water, and we have to protect it.”

About the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

Straddling the South Dakota and North Dakota border, the Standing Rock Indian Reservation covers 2.3 million acres, stretching across endless prairie plains, rolling hills and buttes that border the Missouri River. Home to the Lakota and Dakota nations, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is committed to protecting the language, culture and well-being of its people through economic development, technology advancement, community engagement and education. In 2016 and 2017, Standing Rock gained international attention when tens of thousands of allies came to protest camps to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline, which continues to threaten the tribe’s sole source of fresh drinking water in Lake Oahe and the Missouri River.

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