Iowans owe debt to tribes fighting oil pipeline

When this election is complete, I hope to travel and stand alongside the Standing Rock Sioux. It’s the least I can do for the 300 tribes who are inadvertently fighting for the protection of Iowa farmland while demanding their sovereignty be respected.

The massive demonstrations near Lake Oahe in North Dakota began in the spring with a few members of the Standing Rock Sioux establishing a prayer encampment. It’s now blossomed into an international discussion that encompasses climate change, the future of renewable fuels and, of course, tribal rights.

Dakota Access Pipeline protesters square off against police near the Standing Rock Reservation and the pipeline route outside the little town of Saint Anthony, North Dakota, U.S., October 5, 2016. (Terray Sylvester/Reuters)
Dakota Access Pipeline protesters square off against police near the Standing Rock Reservation and the pipeline route outside the little town of Saint Anthony, North Dakota, U.S., October 5, 2016. (Terray Sylvester/Reuters)

It centers on the Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry about a half-million barrels of Bakken crude each day from North Dakota hydrofracking fields into Illinois, cutting 346 miles diagonally, northwest to southeast, across Iowa. Developed by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, and given the all-clear by the Iowa Utilities Board, the entire 1,172-mile line will cost an estimated $3.78 billion.

It’s a project that many Iowa landowners opposed, especially since it would require the state to use eminent domain on behalf of a corporate entity. And despite continued legal battles against the project, an attorney for the project told state officials earlier this month that construction in Iowa is nearly finished, and that crews do “not anticipate engaging in winter construction on any parcels in Iowa.”

As social justice advocate David Goodner noted in an Op-Ed for Little Village magazine, Iowans continue to demonstrate against the project — more than 150 arrested for participating. Yet, focus appears to be dwindling, or at least shifting to other, less public, strategies.

But even as developers scramble in an attempt to complete the pipeline by January, thousands of demonstrators have gathered in North Dakota. They’ve vowed to stay, despite the onslaught of winter, and stop construction. The location, dubbed Sacred Stone Camp, has received thousands of donations from people across the nation — tents, toiletries, boots, sleeping bags and more.

Pipeline passage under the Missouri River directly threatens their water supply, the tribe says, adding that a spill would jeopardize drinking and crop water for many others. Sacred cultural lands and tribal burial grounds would be destroyed if the pipeline is allowed to keep its current route.

The tribe won a bittersweet public opinion victory this week, given that it came on the heels of a legal letdown. A federal appeals court rejected the Standing Rock Sioux’s request for an injunction. The tribe, working with neighboring Cheyenne River Sioux, has said it will again appeal on grounds that it wasn’t properly consulted on how the pipeline would impact its ancestral lands.

A joint statement from the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Justice requested the pipeline company pause construction, allowing time for federal officials and tribal leaders to meet. The officials agree this incident has raised the need for reform, that tribes haven’t been consulted partners in the many infrastructure projects that threaten and infringe on their lands.

While the company may agree to avoid this specific area, at least temporarily, neither the government’s latest appeal or its earlier order have stopped construction elsewhere, especially in Iowa. Overall, the pipeline is about 70 percent complete.

It was with this backdrop that five U.S. Senators appealed to the White House, asking that all pipeline construction be stopped until the tribes are appropriately consulted and the Corps completed a full environmental review.

Long before the pipeline route was given Iowa’s green light, I questioned the use of eminent domain, saying “Iowa’s land and water are its most precious commodities.” It’s a sentiment I continue to hold, despite the shortsighted decision by a three-member state board to allow government easements for corporate gain. We are now bound to a deal in which Iowans have little to gain beyond a few construction jobs (that are nearly complete) and everything to lose.

History shows it isn’t a matter of if oil spills will occur, but of when and how much.

I hope we all remember, if our farmland is somehow protected from the threat of Bakken crude, who deserves the credit. In a few more weeks, I will offer my thanks in person and honor my Cherokee grandmother by standing with the Sioux.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on October 16, 2016. Photo Credit: Terray Slyvester/Reuters