A double-back decision by the Army to approve a final, critical permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline, while bypassing an environmental review, has led the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its allies to double down in their near-yearlong opposition to the contentious project they maintain endangers tribal water and sacred lands.
"As Native peoples, we have been knocked down again, but we will get back up," Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman David Archambault II said of the order in a statement. "We will rise above the greed and corruption that has plagued our peoples since first contact."
The order from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a 30-year easement, or permission, for the pipeline to cross federal land under Lake Oahe, a manmade reservoir of the Missouri River in south-central North Dakota. The lake is located roughly a half mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
Since April, the site has served as the center of the opposition against the pipeline for the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies from other Native Americans tribes, as well as the environmental and faith communities. Communal prayer has been prominent throughout the standoff, which has been called the largest modern gathering of Native tribes, with as many as 8,000 assembled at one point.
At other times, the camp near Cannon Ball, N.D., has seen violent clashes between Standing Rock allies, who call themselves "water protectors," and local law enforcement and pipeline workers.
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More: Larger faith community comes to Standing Rock in solidarity (Nov. 7, 2016)
The Missouri River crossing is the last major piece of the 1,172-mile pipeline to be constructed. Once completed, it would carry daily 470,000 to 570,000 barrels of oil across four states from North Dakota to Illinois. Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, which is building Dakota Access, has said it is the safest way to transport the oil and that it has followed all necessary review processes for the $3.8 billion project.
Energy Transfer Partners officially received the easement the evening of Feb. 8. A spokeswoman told The Associated Press that construction would resume immediately. The company said it would be operational within months.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., welcomed the easement's issuing, saying, "We must have a process to build safe, efficient and environmentally sound projects like pipelines and power lines." But he added that the permitting process needs to be reviewed "to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard and that a fair, certain, and legal process has been followed."
The current route takes the pipeline adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, and across sacred lands they say are protected under past treaties. At one point, the pipeline was to travel near Bismarck, N.D., but was rerouted after concerns a spill could contaminate municipal water supplies.
"It is so concerning that we're not questioning what motivated that decision," said Mercy Sr. Aine O'Connor. In her view, it was driven by discrimination and a lack of consideration of Native American peoples' rights.
Virginia Fifield, a Mercy associate and Mohawk, told NCR she would have liked for the Army at least require an alternate route: "It would have cost [Energy Transfer Partners] more money, but it's money versus people." She said Dakota Access is a civil rights issue for Native Americans, and worries that the pipeline's approval of the pipeline could be "the tip of the iceberg" for the Trump administration in its interactions with indigenous peoples.
The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in a statement said the Army's order represented a "morally unacceptable decision" that "ignores the dignity and tribal sovereignty of our Native American brothers and sisters."
"This action is yet another chapter in the U.S. government's history of injustice to tribal nations and people," they said.
The Franciscan Action Network pointed back to its statement opposing President Donald Trump's executive orders on the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, stating about the former, "Building a pipeline through indigenous people's sacred land is a violation of their religious freedom just the same as if President Trump gave permission to tear down St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to build an oil refinery on the site."
Franciscan Sr. Karla Kloft of Dubuque, Iowa, who visited the Standing Rock camp in November, said the Army order sickened her and represented "another instance where big money and big companies oppress people."
The Army's decision feels "like such a step backwards," said Kristin Juarez, a junior at Loras College in Dubuque studying theology and international studies who also made the trek to the Standing Rock camp.
"It is completely disrespectful to the people whose land it is, who have no voice in the matter. It is disheartening that we put emphasis on fossil fuels instead of seeking new sources of energy," she told NCR.
O'Connor, who joined an interfaith solidarity witness in November, said that it was "irresponsible and reckless" for the Army Corps to grant the easement without completing the environmental impact statement and without full consultation of the Standing Rock Sioux. She referred to Pope Francis in "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," when he said,
If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it.
"I think that we have failed to exercise a precautionary or a critical approach," O'Connor said.
The order said it was complying with Trump's Jan. 24 memorandum that instructed the Army to expedite approval of Dakota Access "to the extent permitted by law," and consider withdrawing a prior directive for an environmental impact statement on the project, which the order also did. The environmental impact statement was requested by the Army in December, and was to include an examination of alternate routes and the risk of oil spills.
More: Standing Rock protesters see Army Corps decision as a cautious win (Dec. 6, 2016)
In the statement Feb. 7, the tribe vowed to challenge the order in court and continue to push for the completion of the environmental impact statement.
"We are a sovereign nation and we will fight to protect our water and sacred places from the brazen private interests trying to push this pipeline through to benefit a few wealthy Americans with financial ties to the Trump administration," Archambault said.
He asked that instead of returning to Standing Rock that supporters instead head to "exercise your First Amendment rights and take this fight to your respective state capitols." He also asked people to join them and other tribes March 10 for the Native Nations March on Washington.
The tribe added that if the pipeline is completed, it will seek to shut operations down.
The Feb. 7 order "is not the end of the fight — it is the new beginning," Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said in a separate statement.
He said granting of the easement goes against protocol and legal process, disregards more than 100,000 comments already submitted for the environmental review process, and "goes against the treaty rights of the entire Seven Councils Fires of the Sioux Nations."
He added that Trump has not met with the leadership of the Native Nations. Archambault said he flew to Washington Feb. 7 to meet with Trump administration officials, but canceled the meeting upon hearing as he landed the decision about the easement.
The tribal chairman called disrespectful Trump's "complete disregard for Native Nations and our treaty rights," and spoke of his "brazen conflict of interest to the pipeline" — an apparent reference to Trump holding investments in Energy Transfer Partners. A campaign spokeswoman told The Washington Post that he sold off his shares during the summer.
Responses to the easement approval began Feb. 8, with protests held outside the White House and elsewhere around the country.
Earlier in the day, Trump had said, "I haven't had one call from anybody" complaining about his memorandum. He added, "I don't even think it was controversial."
In response, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups urged people to sound off their opposition to the pipeline on Trump's personal and presidential Twitter accounts, and by calling the White House or the numerous golf courses and hotels bearing his name.
O'Connor said she and other Mercy sisters plan to join the Native Nations March and will call on their representatives in Congress to support a letter sent the evening of Feb. 7 from Democratic members of the Senate and House natural resources committees that calls on the president "to immediately reverse this decision and follow the appropriate procedures required for tribal consultation, environmental law, and due process."
"If anything," O'Connor said, "it causes us to join together in solidarity, as we have been doing over the last several weeks. ... Our sense of Gospel work and Gospel hope tells us that we have to keep showing up and to keep resisting."
Fifield, the Mercy associate, said that Standing Rock represents the beginning of a movement, one by which Native Americans "have finally found our voice."
"Indigenous people around the world have found their voice, and we will not be pushed, we will not be silenced. It’s gone on long enough," she said.
A week before the judge's order, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said it would "vigorously pursue legal action" to ensure an environmental review occurs.
"To abandon the [environmental impact statement] would amount to a wholly unexplained and arbitrary change based on the President's personal views and, potentially, personal investments. We stand ready to fight this battle against corporate interest superseding government procedure and the health and wellbeing of millions of Americans," the tribe said in a statement.
Throughout the protests, the tribe has insisted it does not oppose infrastructure or energy projects but that it was intent on making sure that decisions on such projects are made with input from and consideration of indigenous peoples, and do not pose a threat to the land.
Trump has promised to cut back environmental regulations that he said harms businesses, and to expedite the environmental review process.
"I'm a very big person when it comes to the environment. I've received awards on the environment, but some of that stuff makes it impossible to get anything built," he said during a meeting with business leaders Jan. 23.
"We can't have that. If somebody wants to put up a factory, it's going to be expedited. You have to go through the process, but it's going to be expedited, and we're going to take care of the environment, we're going to take care of safety and all the other things we have to take care of," Trump said.
To read about women religious and other Catholics acting in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, see: Catholics supporting #NoDAPL movement see call to protect creation