U.S. government seeks to halt North Dakota pipeline construction

Protesters' attempt to halt construction of an oil pipeline on U.S. army land near a North Dakota reservation failed in court Friday, but the  U.S. government has asked the pipeline company to "voluntarily pause" construction in an area that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe says holds sacred sites and artifacts.

The departments of Justice, Army and Interior said they are reviewing past decisions on land bordering or under Lake Oahe and that they have asked Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners to stop work within 32 kilometres east or west of the lake.

A joint statement from the three government agencies said the case "highlighted the need for a serious discussion" about nationwide reforms "with respect to considering tribes' views on these types of infrastructure projects."

The U.S. government will invite members of Native American tribes to join "formal, government-to-government consultations" about infrastructure projects and land rights this fall, the statement says.

At the state capitol, pipeline protesters were happy to learn about federal authorities recommending that construction be halted. Several hundred people gathered on the lawn, braving a torrential downpour to sing, play drums and burn sage grass.

They pumped their firsts in the air and chanted, "I believe that we will win" and carried signs that read "Respect Our Water" and "Water is Sacred."

On Friday, the tribe called the government's intervention "stunning," saying it set the stage for nationwide reform on projects affecting tribal lands.

"Our hearts are full, this an historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and for tribes across the nation," tribal chairman Dave Archambault II said in a statement. "Our voices have been heard."

Judge denies injunction 

Just prior to the move by the U.S. government, a federal judge had ruled against a request by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for a temporary construction halt. 

In Washington, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg rejected the tribe's request for a temporary injunction in a 58-page ruling.

In his ruling, Boasberg said "the court does not lightly countenance any depredation of lands that hold significance to the Standing Rock Sioux." He said "the court scrutinizes the permitting process here with particular care. Having done so, the court must nonetheless conclude that the tribe has not demonstrated that an injunction is warranted here."

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had challenged the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to grant permits at more than 200 water crossings for the $3.8-billion US pipeline. The tribe argued that it threatens water supplies and has already disrupted sacred sites.

Vicki Granado, a spokeswoman for the company, said it had no comment.

'We will continue to stand'

Tribal historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard said Boasberg's ruling gave her "a great amount of grief."

She said protests would continue at the pipeline construction site, where thousands of demonstrators have gathered in recent weeks.

"My heart is hurting, but we will continue to stand, and we will look for other legal recourses," she said.  

About 100 North Dakota National Guard troops were activated by the state governor ahead of the judge's ruling.

But Judith LeBlanc, a member of the Caddo Nation in Oklahoma and director of the New York-based Native Organizers Alliance, said before the decision was issued that she expected the protests to remain peaceful.

"There's never been a coming together of tribes like this," she said of Friday's gathering of Native Americans. People came from as far as New York and Alaska, some bringing their families and children, and hundreds of tribal flags dotted the camp, along with American flags flown upside down in protest.

A week ago, protesters and construction workers clashed when, according to tribal officials, workers bulldozed sites on private land that the tribe says in court documents are "of great historic and cultural significance." Energy Transfer Partners denied the allegations.

Four private security guards and two guard dogs were injured, officials said, while a tribal spokesman said six people — including a child — were bitten by the dogs and at least 30 people were pepper-sprayed.

On Thursday, North Dakota's archaeologist said a piece of private land that was not previously surveyed by the state would be surveyed for artifacts next week.

The almost 1,700-kilometre long pipeline would carry light sweet crude oil from the Bakken oilfield in North Dakota near the Canadian border to Illinois. Calgary-based Enbridge is spending $1.5 billion to be a part of the project. 

Enbridge declined to comment. Spokeswoman Suzanne Wilton said the company's planned investment in the pipeline "does not include construction or management of the project."

Correction : An earlier version of this story said the judge denied the tribe's request in a one-page ruling without explanation. In fact, the judge issued a 58-page ruling.(Sep 09, 2016 3:47 PM)