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In Victory For Protesters, Army Corps Denies Easement For Dakota Pipeline


Let me start by apologizing for my voice today. I have a - sort of a late-breaking case of laryngitis just as we are reporting a major development today regarding that controversial pipeline project in North Dakota. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced today that it was denying the federal easement for the pipeline to cross the Missouri River. The Corps of Engineers will study alternate routes. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe had been joined by thousands of other activists in a network of camps on the prairie near Cannon Ball, N.D. Protesters claim the crude oil pipeline could compromise the tribe's water supply, infringe on sacred lands and was being built without proper consultation.

NPR's Nate Rott is covering the story and is with us now from the protest site in North Dakota. Nate, thanks so much for joining us. What was the mood there as the news spread that the Army Corps of Engineers had made this decision?


Temperate excitement would probably be the best way to characterize it. I was standing up on this hill that everybody here calls Facebook Hill because it's about the only place you get really reliable cell service here at the camp. And people started seeing things on their phones and I was hearing kind of excited whispers about it, but, I mean, people here have been really tight-lipped all week about anything. I mean, you have to go through the tribal government and their spokespeople to get any sort of formal statement. A little later on, as the news had spread a little wider, you could hear cheers around camp.

A guy just said the Army Corps Engineer just - the Army Corps just announced that they denied it, and people cheered and hooed and haaed (ph). And so I think people are excited. I don't expect there to be champagne bottles popping or anything later. It's a dry camp. But one guy did say - that I was standing next to said it's going to be a heck of a party tonight.

MARTIN: What does this decision by the Army Corps of Engineers mean in the long run? I guess is this a short-term decision or is this a long-run decision?

ROTT: Well, it's kind of hard to say, really. I mean, they're going to go ahead and they're going to look at it. They're going to do an environmental impact statement and really see what the possibility of a leak would be, if this is the best route. These are things that they've already done, they say they've already done. Really what people are concerned about here is that, you know, the Army Corps of Engineers could go through that entire process and they could say, hey, no, this spot is still the best place to put this pipeline and go ahead with it.

So this isn't a - they haven't killed this project. There's a chance that it could still go through. And you hear that from people here. Some people I was talking to said that they - you know, they didn't - haven't won the war yet. This is just a battle.

MARTIN: Have the issues at play here evolved over the course of time?

ROTT: Certainly. I think this started as a - you know, a fight over a pipeline. People - the tribe is obviously concerned that it could - that the pipeline could leak and it could go ahead and it could contaminate the water here on the Missouri River, and that's where they get the bulk of their drinking water. There are some concerns that it could also disturb some historical sacred ground that the tribe has here just north of their reservation. But it's really evolved into more of an argument over sovereignty and consultation. The tribe feels like they did not get their say in approving this pipeline beforehand. The state of North Dakota - obviously they say that they tried reaching out to the state, but - but yeah.

MARTIN: To that end, Nate, we're just running out of time. I wanted to get to a couple more questions because we opened the discussion to our listeners on social media this weekend to ask - to find out what they were interested in knowing. And a lot of people wanted to know if we know what are the actual land rights involved here. Is this sovereign native territory? Is this Army Corps land? Who are the fundamental players here?

ROTT: So the land that they're - the land in question, it's a very small segment. The pipeline has been built for the large part. It's just this section around the Missouri River. That is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. The tribe says that it used to be their land and through treaties with the U.S. government, it should have been their land. And that's kind of been nickeled and dimed over the years down.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, Nate, any indication about how the incoming Trump administration is likely to regard this decision? Very briefly, if you can.

ROTT: We all just heard this news, so we haven't heard anything from the Trump administration yet. We do know, though, that he has said he does support the construction of the pipeline. And so a lot of people here that I've talked to have said that's a big concern for them, that a Trump administration would go ahead and try to see it through.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Nate Rott reporting to us from the protest site in North Dakota. Nate, thank you so much.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.