“The prospect of an oil spill during such low water is truly scary,” says the tribe’s Water Resources Department administrator.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on Thursday confirmed that it is no longer a “cooperating agency” for the Dakota Access oil pipeline and demanded federal action to address concerns that a leak could affect Lake Oahe, the tribe’s only source of fresh drinking water.
Janet Alkire, the tribe’s newly elected chairperson, warned in a statement that low water levels resulting from “misplaced priorities in the operation of Oahe and the other dams on the Missouri River” could affect cleanup plans in the event of a Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) spill.
“If an oil spill were to occur today, the plans submitted for remediation at Lake Oahe probably couldn’t be implemented,” Alkire said. “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, explained that “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.”
The Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles the Dakotas, has long served as a home base for Indigenous-led protests against the controversial oil pipeline that spans 1,172 miles from North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa, to a terminal in Illinois.
As Indigenous and climate activists along with progressive lawmakers continue to pressure President Joe Biden to shut down DAPL—which began operating in 2017—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a court-ordered environmental assessment expected to be finished this March.
Crow Ghost pointed out Thursday that “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.”
“The prospect of an oil spill during such low water is truly scary,” he said.
Alkire called on the Corps to take urgent action to protect the lake.
“The Army Corps must raise Lake Oahe to safe levels or shut down the Dakota Access pipeline immediately,” she said. “Our way of life at Standing Rock relies on our water, and we have to protect it.”
Don Holmstrom, the tribe’s emergency planning consultant and a retired director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s Denver office, echoed the tribal leaders’ criticism of Energy Transfer Partners’ emergency plans for containing an oil spill.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Holmstrom also addressed the tribe’s withdrawal as a cooperating agency in the midst of the Corps’ forthcoming assessment of the pipeline, highlighting that the Tribal Emergency Response Commission (TERC) has never seen a full version of DAPL’s emergency plans.
“The Corps has failed to provide the Standing Rock TERC the most recent, unredacted response plans,” he said. “Coordination and transparency with the TERC have been nonexistent.”
Holmstrom emphasized the importance of accurately estimating how much DAPL oil could spill into the Missouri River if the pipeline ruptured or leaked, saying that “Energy Transfer’s worst-case discharge calculations are grossly understated.”
“All these flaws weaken an effective oil spill response and place emergency responders and tribal members in harm’s way,” the consultant warned, adding that “there are many unresolved issues, but the oil continues to flow.”