Oglalas move to protect water system against Keystone pipeline

Published in Indian Country Today in 2011. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

The giant energy company that wants to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline from northern Canada across six U.S. states to Texas and Oklahoma has successfully ignored protesters and brushed off the climate-change scientists. It has convinced the feds that higher-priced gasoline is good for us. Now, it’s face-to-face with the Sioux nations. 

On September 27 in Rapid City, TransCanada will meet with several Sioux tribes, as well as federal agencies including the State Department and the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. At issue is whether Keystone XL can cross the pipeline that delivers water to the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

            By threading the South Dakota portion of the Keystone XL pipeline route between Pine Ridge and the nearby Rosebud reservations, whose water supply connects to that of the Oglalas, it appears TransCanada was trying to avoid dealing with the Sioux tribes, according to Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele, who set up the meeting. “However, the company did not realize that the route crosses the Oglala Sioux Rural Water Supply System,” said Steele. “The OSRWSS consists of a core pipeline and related facilities, including a reservation delivery system, that are held in trust by the United States for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.”

Now, TransCanada has asked federal agencies for an easement (right of way) that would allow Keystone XL to transport a particularly corrosive and toxic type of crude oil across the Oglala’s water system in two places. Not so fast, said Steele; it’s not just up to the federal government: “Under the Mni Wiconi Act, the Oglala Sioux Tribe must concur before any federal agencies can approve an easement.”  

Steele also laid out conditions for Oglala approval of the route, including pipeline-safety guarantees, protection of environmental and cultural resources within the Sioux 1851 and 1868 treaty areas, and a survey to determine damages to Sioux aboriginal-title land by a spill that occurred when the TransCanada’s existing Keystone pipeline burst in North Dakota in May 2011.

Said TransCanada spokesperson Terry Cunha, the company will be attending the meeting “to discuss the details of our pipeline crossings of the Ogallala [sic] Sioux Rural Water Supply System (OSRWSS). All parties are interested in ensuring that the OSRWSS is crossed safely.”

Since the Rosebud and Lower Brule Sioux Tribes’ water systems intersect the ORSWSS, Steele has invited their chairpersons, Rodney Bordeaux and Michael Jandreau, respectively, to attend the meeting in Rapid City. Other tribes have indicated they’re planning to go, including the Yankton Sioux, whose chairman, Robert Cournoyer, expressed concern over potential effects in South Dakota and what he called “devastating” consequences in the areas where the oil is mined. 

TransCanada may well have wished to avoid the requests for government-to-government negotiations that arose in 2008 around the first Keystone pipeline, which also transports Canadian crude across several U.S. states. A coalition of Sioux tribes and others demanded those types of consultations, as well as serious consideration of impacts on cultural resources and the environment. In the end, the federal government, which must approve pipelines that cross international boundaries, was eager to see the project underway and proceeded without acceding to those requests. At the time, one local resident described the government’s attitude toward the line’s construction as, “Go right ahead, and don’t run over any jackrabbits.”

The first Keystone pipeline has already experienced about a dozen spills, including the May 2011 North Dakota accident that Steele wants cleaned up. That incident also appears to have exposed problems with TransCanada’s leak-detection system. According to the National Resources Defense Council, the North Dakota Public Service Commission found that TransCanada was still trying to figure out what was going on when a nearby landowner reported that an oil geyser was visible over the treeline. The rupture resulted in a 21,000-gallon spill.

The accident occurred in the context of many recent energy-pipeline incidents: 585 in 2010 alone, with nearly a billion dollars in property damages and more than 20 fatalities, according to the Transportation Department’s Office of Pipeline Safety. There are so many pipeline ruptures, explosions and fires annually that few make headlines. One that did in July of last year resulted in 800,000 gallons of oil spewing into a tributary of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, impacting 35 miles of river and shoreline. Cleanup continues to this day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Michigan.

Climate change and widespread environmental damage have been concerns. The type of oil that comes from the so-called tar sands, or oil sands, of northern Canada requires huge amounts of water and energy to extract; the process releases tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases and toxins and has turned vast stretches of pristine North American boreal forest into a moonscape. Indigenous communities with homelands in that area report damage to health, social stability, local economies and wildlife.

If you’ve never seen an oil-sands mining operation, you may have a hard time imagining its scope, according to elder and traditional scientist Patrick Marcel, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta: “They strip all the trees and earth to get at the oil. It’s a terrible thing, 100-percent devastation.”

Those opposed to the new Keystone XL pipeline have also noted that it will drive up U.S. oil prices, making it more expensive—not cheaper—for Americans to fill their gas tanks. Cunha referred to the price hike as “reducing the price discount.” This may be a plus for energy companies’ bottom line, but it’s not good for ordinary citizens or the economy, say opponents.

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph c. Joseph Zummo.

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