CANNON BALL, NORTH DAKOTA —
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has denied an easement for the highly controversial $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, the subject of months of protest by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which contends the project would affect its drinking water supply and destroy its sacred sites.
In a statement Sunday, the Corps of Engineers said it would be undertaking an environmental impact statement to look at possible alternative routes for the project.
Thousands of people – Sioux and their supporters – celebrated the announcement with speeches and drums. Nearly 100 cars lined a route through the protest site, honking and chanting “mni wiconi” (Lakota for “water is life”) as they entered the protest camp to celebrate.
One camper said the announcement followed a large prayer circle.
“They had a prayer circle around the whole camp,” Waldo Zahn, who has been living at the camp - located on federal land - for months, told VOA. “As soon as we broke that I came in here, I looked on Facebook …DENIED! Ah, that was awesome.”
“I second that one,” his brother Mel Martinez said. “It’s wonderful to hear something like that.”
Cars are slowed down by security as they enter the camp at Standing Rock, where thousands have been living in protest of an oil pipeline planned through Native American land (E. Sarai/VOA)
But to the residents and water protectors, this is not the end. Few people have indicated plans to go home, and although celebrations are happening in various forms, most people remain cautious.
“They could always do something again, you know?” Zahn said. “I think they think we’re going to break camp, but I don’t think anybody is breaking camp.”
Some campers even refrained from celebrating at all, calling the announcement an empty promise.
“I think they’ve said this several times…and we can’t trust anything they say,” said Clark Kent, who has been at the camp since September. “They have a deadline and all our recent recon shows that they have already gone under the river, so to tell them to stop now when they’ve already done it … I don’t know. I don’t know how to feel. I’m definitely not celebrating like everybody else.”
Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard speaks to the media after addressing veterans near the Standing Rock camp in North Dakota (E. Sarai/VOA)
The decision was announced just hours after hundreds of military veterans came to volunteer at the camp to show their support. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a veteran herself, came to North Dakota over the weekend to meet with Sioux leaders and express her support.
“I join Chairman Archambault, my fellow veterans, the thousands of water protectors here at Standing Rock, and millions of people around the world in expressing tremendous gratitude for this announcement,” she said in a statement released after she spoke to the Veterans for Standing Rock.
"Chimneys" fume in the camp from wood stove heaters set up in long-term tents. (E. Sarai/VOA)
The 1,885 kilometer pipeline, owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP, is mostly complete, except for a segment planned to run under Lake Oahe, a reservoir in North Dakota formed by a dam on the Missouri River. it is designed to transport up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois.
An official with Donald Trump's transition team says the president elect will "support construction" of the pipeline and will review the project once in office.
The company had no immediate comment on the decision.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been protesting the pipeline for months. During the protest, the tribe has been joined by multiple groups and activists, and at times violence has erupted.
Children sled down "media hill" at the Standing Rock camp (E. Sarai/VOA)
In September, the Obama administration temporarily blocked construction in hopes of conducting a review of the project, but a federal court later ruled the project could continue.
The Corps of Engineers originally had set a Monday deadline for the activists to vacate the site, but later said it would not enforce the order. Demonstrators had said they were prepared to stay, and federal, state and local authorities all said they would not forcibly remove them.