The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and environmentalists have won a major victory in their months-long campaign against the proposed Dakota Access oil pipeline, with the US Army saying its engineers will not grant a permit for drilling under the Missouri River.
The army said its decision was based on “a need to explore alternate routes” for the crossing.
President-elect Donald Trump has had stocks in two companies – Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the project’s builder, and Phillips 66, which owns one-quarter of the pipeline – and has supported the project. He denies his policy is related to any financial interest.
Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the tribe, cautioned that the decision could be appealed.
“They [Energy Transfer Partners] can sue, and Trump can try to overturn,” Hasselman said. “But overturning it would be subject to close scrutiny by a reviewing court, and we will be watching the new administration closely.”
“We hope that [Energy Transfer CEO] Kelcy Warren, Governor [Jack] Dalrymple, and the incoming Trump administration respect this decision and understand the complex process that led us to this point,” tribal chairman Dave Archambault said.
The announcement came just one day before the army deadline for thousands of Native American and environmental activists – who call themselves water protectors – to leave a sprawling camp on the riverbanks.
For months, they have protested over their fears that the pipeline would contaminate the water source and destroy sacred sites, and over the weekend hundreds of military veterans arrived in a show of support.
As word spread, protesters broke out in jubilant celebrations, and at nightfall a few fireworks burst above the tents and campfires.
“I just cried when I heard the news,” said Sylvia Picotte of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, which has travelled to Standing Rock every weekend since August. “We have been stepped on for so long, all I could do was hope.”
Many gathered around the central fire to sing and cheer, while others marched through camp carrying mirrored shields above their head.
“It’s the silver water serpent coming from the air to beat the black snake,” said Jake Damon of the Navajo nation from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was referring to a prophecy of a black snake that many have interpreted to mean the pipeline.
“This wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the unity of the tribes.”
But others voiced caution, citing Trump’s arrival on the national stage and hints that the energy company will appeal the decision.
“It’s a trick. It’s a lie. Until that drill is shut down it’s not over yet,” said Frank Archambault of the Standing Rock Sioux who moved his family to the camp in August. “Everybody needs to stay in place.”
“We’ve been lied to and deceived this whole time,” he said. “Why should this time be any different?”
Energy Transfer Partners had nearly completed the project earlier this year when executives moved the 2768km pipeline’s path south from Bismarck, North Dakota, to 1km north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The pipeline is intended to carry 470,000 barrels per day from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to a refinery in Illinois.
In April the tribe established the first “spiritual camp” on the riverbanks. Members of hundreds of other indigenous tribes answered the call to join in the struggle, resulting in the largest gathering of Native American tribes in more than a century.
The tribe’s decision to fight back against the powerful oil industry also captured the attention of environmental activists and celebrities.
Thousands have travelled to the camp, and over the weekend a contingent of veterans began arriving to serve as a “human shield” for the protesters, who have been subjected to rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas from local law enforcement.
Attorney-General Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department would continue to monitor and mediate between protestors and police.