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Jan Lee headshot

Crude Oil Leak Fouls Key Waterway Near Dakota Pipeline Route

By Jan Lee

Until early this month, the question of whether the Dakota Access Pipeline should cross the Missouri River was centered on issues of fairness: Was it appropriate – and even legal – to deny a key route for the crude oil pipeline if the developer had already obtained a permit? Had the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers really considered the concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native Americans living along the route? And do those who oppose a federally permitted pipeline have the right to safety when protesting an action they feel will jeopardize their livelihood?

But on Dec. 5, as water protectors celebrated the federal government’s decision to deny Energy Transfer Partners a permit to drill under the Missouri River, the debate entered a new dimension. The question was no longer just one of equity or justice. It was now a concern about environmental degradation.

For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the issue with DAPL has always been about ecological risk. Prophesies of a “black snake” that sweeps across Native lands, destroying the earth and poisoning the waters, are intrinsic to the Lakota and Hopi cultures. Those legends also speak to the very reason that the Native American water protectors have been so successful in galvanizing support to protect their key water source from crude oil transports. Not all Americans believe in prophesies and legends, but most recognize the outcome of the 'black snake' message: climate change.

Over the past weeks, while water protectors and the Morton County Sheriff’s Office faced off in confrontation, a new threat gathered near the banks of a small creek some 150 miles northwest of the DAPL protests: a 176,000 gallon crude oil leak that went undetected by pipeline owners.

The Belle Fourche Pipeline leak was discovered by a local landowner last week. By the time the pipeline company responded, some 130,000 gallons had seeped into the Little Missouri River.

A tributary of the massive Missouri River, the Little Missouri feeds both North Dakota’s vital grasslands and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park before joining up with the Missouri River in the northern part of the state. From there, it flows into other key water sources, like the Yellowstone River and Fort Peck Lake, a major reservoir in Montana. The Little Missouri may sound small in name, but it plays an indispensable role in America’s vital watersheds.

But what is really alarming about last week’s happenstance discovery is that crude oil leaks like this are far from abnormal.

True Pipelines, which owns the Belle Fourche, is also the parent company of Bridger Pipeline. The latter company was forced to shut down its Poplar route due to an undetected leak under the Yellowstone River in January 2015. The Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t given a specific tally of the leak (somewhere between 300 and 1,200 gallons), but the cleanup was reportedly harrowing. The lack of specific knowledge about what crude actually does in melting ice prolonged and complicated the recovery process.

The water protectors may now have the proof they need to oppose a Missouri River crossing by the DAPL pipeline, but it’s a hollow win. Less than a week after the leak was detected in a nearby leak, another stream of oil emanating from Belle Fourche was found seeping across solid land. So far, almost 200,000 gallons have tainted water sources and adjoining properties.  For the Belle Fourche Pipeline and its parent company, it’s far from their first leak in America’s heartland.

But even with all of this history to point to, blocking another river crossing in court may be still be tough.

President-elect Trump’s recent pick of Rick Perry as energy secretary brings, as with many of his other appointments, its own controversies. Perry, who would be expected to oversee energy production and regulation issues, sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind DAPL.

Perry has also questioned whether climate change exists. And he would be in the position of making decisions that could directly impact Native American communities near and in the path of proposed crude oil pipelines.

While it may be unlikely that the court would reinstate a permit for DAPL to cross the Missouri at its current junction, the question of how to protect the country’s vital watersheds from construction, especially in light of Trump's support for a prospective energy secretary who has received millions in donations from the oil industry, is still an open debate.

Image credit: Flickr/epape

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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