The Obama administration took the drastic step Friday of temporarily blocking work on a North Dakota pipeline after violent clashes between protesters and security guards, overruling a federal judge’s order allowing work to proceed.
In a joint statement, the Justice Department, Interior Department, Army Corps of Engineers and Department of the Army halted the Dakota Access Pipeline pending a review to determine whether the administration “will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions” approving the project.
The statement was issued within hours of a decision by U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg denying the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s request to delay construction, ruling that tribe had failed to show that the project would damage cultural or historic sites.
The North Dakota Petroleum Council blasted the administration’s intervention, describing it as “yet another flagrant overreach by federal government and this administration” that will “only allow this rancor to continue.”
“For too long, this project has been mired in a campaign of misinformation and violence that does not consider the greater interests of national security and the state and nation’s economic prosperity,” said the council in a statement.
Tribal leaders and national environmental groups cheered the postponement, which comes after protesters drew national headlines by breaking down fences around the $3.8 billion project and confronting security guards.
The Standing Rock called the postponement a “game-changer,” while the environmental litigation group Earthjustice, which represents the tribe, said it would give “everyone a much-needed ‘time out’ at Lake Oahe and an opportunity to rethink both this pipeline and the broader way in which we approach such projects.”
“While the legal fight will surely continue for now, the administration has opened the door for genuine problem solving,” said Earthjustice in the Friday statement.
Protests began in April near the construction site on the planned 1,127-mile Dakota Access pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners, which is slated to run crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken field through South Dakota and Iowa to an existing pipeline in Pakota, Illinois.
The demonstration turned violent last week after bulldozers began work on what tribal leaders described as places of “significant cultural and historic value” on private land, which Energy Transfer Partners has denied.
Video posted from last week’s confrontation showed guards using mace and dogs to keep back the protesters, as well as scenes of demonstrators throwing rocks at guards and hitting dogs with sticks
The tribe said about 30 people were pepper-sprayed and six were bitten in the skirmish, while local law enforcement said four guards and two dogs were injured in the Sept. 3 melee.
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Thursday activated the National Guard “out of an abundance of caution” as protests continued along Highway 1806 south of Mandan.
The administration said it would continue to provide resources “to defuse tensions, support peaceful protest, and maintain public safety,” while calling for demonstrators “to adhere to the principles of nonviolence.”
All but 3 percent of the project, which is 48 percent completed, runs on private land.
The Standing Rock have argued that the pipeline, which passes about a half-mile from the 2.3-million acre reservation, will disturb historic sites located off the reservation and could contaminate drinking water for the tribe’s 8,000 members.
In his ruling, however, Judge Boasberg said the tribe repeatedly foiled federal efforts to confer on the work’s impact even though other nearby tribes cooperated with the process.
At one point, the Standing Rock cancelled an October meeting that had been on the books for a month because “nobody from the tribe was available to attend.” The tribe also refused to participate in cultural surveys, even though the corps had moved to take “avoidance measures” where other tribes had raised concerns.
The petroleum council said that the judge’s ruling “upholds what a vast majority of North Dakotans have known and believed all along: that this is a legal project that has met and exceeded the requirements of four states and the federal government.”
Meanwhile, Standing Rock chairman David Archambault II said in a Friday statement that “our hearts are full” after the administration’s postponement.
“Native peoples have suffered generations of broken promises and today the federal government said that national reform is needed to better ensure that tribes have a voice on infrastructure projects like this pipeline,” Mr. Archambault said.