On the U.S. Army Corps’ Aug. 31 Decision on the Dakota Access Pipeline

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a brief decision on Aug. 31, 2018, affirming its original decision to issue a construction permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Attorney Jan Hasselman explains what it means.

The Native Nations Rise gathering in Washington, D.C., March 7, 2017.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a brief decision on Aug. 31, 2018, affirming its original decision to issue a construction permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The decision comes a year after a federal court decision finding that the Army Corps decision violated federal laws and failed to consider the risks and impacts of oil spills.

Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman, who represented the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their lawsuit against the Army Corps. explains what happened.

What action was just taken by the Army Corps of Engineers?

The Corps released a review of its original decision to grant permits to the Dakota Access pipeline to cross the Missouri River just upstream of the Standing Rock reservation.

The review concludes that the original decision was lawful and adequate and that no further environmental review is necessary. (Read the Corps’ decision.)

DAPL Remand Decision (PDF)
DAPL Remand Decision (Text)

How did the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe respond?

Mike Faith, Jr., Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, issued this statement: “The Army Corps’ decision to rubberstamp its illegal and flawed permit for DAPL will not stand.

“A federal judge declared the DAPL permits to be illegal, and ordered the Corps to take a fresh look at the risks of an oil spill and the impacts to the Tribe and its Treaty rights. That is not what the Army Corps did. Instead, we got a cynical and one-sided document designed to paper over mistakes, not address the Tribe’s legitimate concerns.

“The Tribe has worked in good faith every step of the way to develop technical and cultural information to help the Corps fully understand the consequences of permitting this pipeline. They took our hard work and threw it in the trash.

“The Tribe will be reviewing this decision closely, and determine how best to proceed in close consultation with our membership, staff, and advisors. In the meantime, we will continue to extend an open hand to the Army Corps to continue an honest dialogue about the impacts of this pipeline to the Standing Rock.”

Why did the Corps conduct a review of its original permit decision?

After Donald Trump reversed the Obama administration’s decision to effectively deny DAPL its permits at the Missouri, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, represented by lawyers at Earthjustice, filed a new lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers.

Among other things, the lawsuit alleged that the Corps failed to consider the risks of an oil spill, the impacts of a spill for the Tribe’s treaty rights, and the “environmental justice” implications of the permit.

In June of 2017, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., agreed with the Tribe on these issues, finding that the Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to give appropriate consideration to these matters.

The Court ordered the Corps to study these issues further and make a new permit decision. This review is known as a “remand.” (More on the 2017 ruling.)

What is the National Environmental Policy Act?

Often referred to by its acronym, “NEPA,” the National Environmental Policy Act is one of America’s landmark environmental laws — it is sometimes known as the “Magna Carta” of environmental law.

This law requires that, before a federal agency takes any action (such as a permit) that has significant environmental implications, it must fully disclose and consider all the risks and benefits of that decision — as well as alternatives with less environmental harm. The document for doing so is called an ”environmental impact statement.”

But the Army Corps never performed an environmental impact statement for the Dakota Access pipeline, finding that its effects were too insignificant to warrant that close study.

The remand document reaffirms that core finding, which the Tribe continues to believe is illegal.

Is the pipeline currently operating?

DAPL commenced operations in early June 2017, a few weeks prior to the Court’s decision finding that the permits were issued unlawfully.

The Court subsequently asked the parties for additional argument on whether the pipeline should be shut down while the remand was underway. In October, the Court answered that question in the negative. However, the Court later imposed some measures to increase pipeline safety and accountability.

Did the Tribe participate in the remand process?

The Tribe worked hard to participate in the remand process so that it could work collaboratively with the Corps and ensure that the government understood its concerns.

Its technical experts prepared an extensive report on the risks and oil spills. The Tribe repeatedly asked for meetings and for technical documentation from the Corps and DAPL.

However, the Corps refused to share any of the technical information on which it relied, in violation of its own consultation policies and severely undercutting the ability of the Tribe to comment effectively on DAPL’s incorrect and self-interested technical materials.

What specifically did the remand document conclude?

Remarkably, the Corps’ memorandum of decision is only two pages long. It concludes, without explanation, that:

  1. The pipeline will not adversely impact the Standing Rock Tribe’s treaty resources because “the risk of an incident is low;”
  2. Does not implicate any environmental justice considerations, even though the project was routed at the doorstep of the Standing Rock reservation; and
  3. Rejected the Tribe’s technical input and finds that there is not a significant controversy over the project’s impacts.

The memo points to an analysis that the Corps informed the Court was not being released at this time due to a confidentiality review. However, the Tribe believes that every one of these conclusions is incorrect.

What comes next?

The Tribe, together with its technical and legal teams, will be meeting in the weeks ahead to discuss options.

The Court still retains jurisdiction over the case and may put a deadline on the Tribe to decide whether it will bring a new lawsuit against the remand decision. Those decisions will be made in the next 4–6 weeks.

The Tribe will make a public announcement when it takes the next step in the process.

Jan Hasselman represented the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their lawsuit against the Army Corps. He is a staff attorney at Earthjustice. @JanHasselman

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