US seeks halt to work on pipeline opposed by Native Americans

Nova Safo

Chicago (AFP) - The US government on Friday sought to stop construction on a controversial oil pipeline in North Dakota that has angered Native Americans, blocking any work on federal land and asking the company to "voluntarily pause" work nearby.

The move by the government came after a federal judge denied a request by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to halt construction on the 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometer) long project amid fears it could endanger its drinking water.

The planned pipeline route would cross the Missouri River -- the tribe's water source -- just a half-mile north of its reservation. The tribe says the route could also destroy culturally significant lands nearby.

It claims those concerns were not properly addressed by the pipeline's developer and the US Army Corps of Engineers, the governmental body responsible for approving construction under the river (the state approved the rest of the route).

US District Judge James Boasberg nevertheless sided with the US Army Corps of Engineers and the pipeline's developer Energy Transfer Partners, saying the tribe "has not shown it will suffer injury" if construction is allowed to proceed.

But after the judge's ruling, the government said the matter needed more consideration, and blocked any work on federal land near Lake Oahe, an artificial lake formed by the damming of the Missouri River.

"The Army will not authorize constructing the Dakota Access pipeline on Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe until it can determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions" on the site, authorities said in a statement.

"In the interim, we request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe," said the statement from the Army, the Justice Department and the Department of the Interior.

Standing Rock chairman David Archambault said the tribe was considering its legal options, including whether to file an appeal of the judge's ruling.

"We knew when we entered into this lawsuit that the cards were stacked against us," Archambault told AFP.

"There's a lot of good that can come from today… It's not just about Standing Rock. It's about all indigenous people, indigenous rights."

- 'Serious discussion' -

The Dakota Access pipeline would cross four US states, from North Dakota to Illinois, from where it can be shipped to other parts of the country.

It could help reduce the cost of transporting North Dakota oil, enabling it to better compete with cheaper oil from Canada.

The pipeline's developer, Energy Transfer Partners, has argued that the project is safe. A North Dakota state regulatory body approved its construction after a 13-month review of its safety and impact on culturally significant lands.

But the tribe's lawsuit alleged that the Army Corps of Engineers and the pipeline company did not adequately consider the potential environmental impacts of the project and did not seek the tribe's counsel on the cultural ramifications.

A company spokeswoman declined to comment on the case.

The US government statement said "important issues" had been raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations about both the Dakota Access pipeline and other such projects.

"This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes' views on these types of infrastructure projects," it said, adding it would invite tribal leaders to talks on the issue.

The battle has galvanized Native American tribes throughout the United States, in a months-long protest that has garnered worldwide attention.

Members of some 200 tribes and supporters have gathered for months at a North Dakota camp site near the pipeline's planned route, some as early as April, to oppose the project.

Dallas Goldtooth -- who has emerged as one of the camp's leaders -- said the mood among protesters was one of celebration.

"We celebrate this as a victory," Goldtooth told AFP from a rally at the state capital Bismarck. "Not the ultimate victory. But at least a solid step in the right direction."

He said protests would continue until the pipeline project is "officially killed."