In mid-2016, protests grew in North Dakota over the planned construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is planned to transport approximately 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Opponents of the pipeline held that it would pose a severe danger of contamination (via leakage) to the the only source of water for the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and would threaten historically significant tribal sites:
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accusing the federal agency of violating the National Historic Preservation Act and other laws after it issued final permits for a crude oil pipeline stretching from North Dakota to Illinois.
The tribe, based in Fort Yates, N.D., with members also in South Dakota, is seeking an injunction to stay the pipeline’s construction until its case can be heard.
Represented by Earthjustice, the tribe filed the lawsuit in federal court in Washington D.C
The tribe said in the filing that the “Corps effectively wrote off the tribe’s concerns and ignored the pipeline’s impacts to sacred sites and culturally important landscapes” as the pipeline travels through the tribe’s ancestral lands and passes within half a mile of its current reservation.
The Corps’ approval of the permit allows Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners to dig the Dakota Access pipeline under the Missouri River a half-mile upstream of the reservation and the tribe’s drinking water supply.
An oil spill at this site, said the complaint, would also constitute a threat to the tribe’s culture and way of life.
The protests culminated in social media rumors holding that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) took punitive measures against Native American protesters, including removing tanks supplying drinking water to those demonstrating on tribal land near Cannon Ball. Most reports maintained that DHS “remove[d the] water supply from the protesters’ campsite on 22 August 2016:
Homeland Security head Greg Wilz claimed the removal of the water tanks was based on alleged unlawful activity.
North Dakota’s homeland security removed water tanks and state-owned trailers from the Dakota Access Pipeline protest campsite, taking away the camp’s main drinking water supply as the sun heated up, bringing temperatures to around 90 degrees.
“I feel like I just got shot down,” said Johnelle Leingang, executive secretary to Standing Rock Sioux Nation Chairman Dave Archambault II and the nation’s emergency response coordinator. “It’s very hurtful,” she added, according to the Bismarck Tribune.
Additional coverage included vague details about a purported escalation in the conflict between DHS and the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters, and many articles referenced (but did not explain) a dispute over “lasers”:
North Dakota’s homeland security director ordered the removal of state-owned trailers and water tanks from the Dakota Access Pipeline protest campsite, citing mounting reports of unlawful activity — the latest involving lasers — and the risk of damage.
“Based on the scenario down there, we don’t believe that equipment is secure,” Homeland Security Division Director Greg Wilz said.
As tribal members from across the nation streamed into the campsite, swelling its population to between 2,000 and 4,000 people depending on estimates, the loss of their main drinking water supply came as a blow and sent local officials scrambling to find an alternative water source.
We contacted the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services (NDDES) Public Information Officer Cecily Fong, who was aware of social media rumors claiming that the agency “cut off” the water supply to the protests in an effort to halt demonstrations (and presumably enable the construction of the pipeline unhindered). Fong told us that many of the reports on social media were inaccurate and provided more information about to the agency’s role in supporting and assisting management of the protests.
Fong confirmed that media reports accurately estimated about 3,000 protesters had gathered at the demonstration’s peak, noting that the agency initiated support for the tribes due to the unprecedented scale of the protests and related safety concerns. She clarified that in no way, shape, or form was any water supply to the tribe cut off on 22 August 2016, or on any other date.
Among mitigating factors described by Fong was the existence of at least two protest sites: one primary and legally sanctioned site established on tribal property, and a secondary protest site illegally situated on land held by the U.S. Army Corps. Fong said that NDDES supplied two water tanks to the protesters as a supportive measure after anticipating a large turnout, but the tanks were removed by NDDES when they were found to have been established at the second site, on which the state had no permission to store assets.
Those tanks were not removed as a punitive measure, nor did they constitute the entirety of the water supply available to tribe members and demonstrators. Fong emphasized that the NDDES does not have the authority to carry out sanctions against persons engaged in lawful protest activity on tribal land.
Fong noted that related rumors held protesters were unable to broadcast activities taking place the protest site due to government interference with cell phones. However, she told us that the connectivity problems stemmed from an influx of protesters to a remote location and stated that NDDES had worked with mobile carriers to enable media and social media coverage of the protests by establishing a repeater tower.
Fong also said related rumors held that access to the site by persons attempting to provide maintenance to portable sanitary facilities had been restricted by the state, but she maintained that NDDES had investigated those rumors to ensure the facilities remained in adequate condition and learned that no maintenance personnel had attempted to pass through a checkpoint during the period of time in question.
Although the legal protest site largely didn’t pose a problem, Fong said that spillover protests led to vandalism and the disruption of private landowners’ use of their property. Moreover, local residents complained about the extralegal demonstrations and requested additional state involvement.
With respect to lasers, Fong clarified that aerial surveying of the site by emergency management officials was twice disrupted by protesters using lasers, in one instance dangerously obstructing the sight of a pilot. It is a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft under any circumstances.
The NNDES summarized all these related issues themselves thusly:
The ND Department of Emergency Services is a state agency that coordinates other state agency assets in response to emergencies, natural disasters, other types of incidents
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe began their protest on tribal land on April 1, 2016. The protest is located just south of the Cannonball River in southern North Dakota. The Sacred Stone Camp is and was a peaceful, lawful protest and has this agency’s and the governor’s full support to protest. This protest is comprised of Standing Rock tribal members, children, and elders. In August, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault put out a call for support and solidarity to the six other Lakota Sioux Tribes. Standing Rock Sioux are Hunkpapa. The six others are: Ogalala, Sicangu or Brule, Miniconjou, Sihasapa or Blackfoot (not to be confused with the separate Blackfoot tribe), Itazipacola, and Oohenupa.
Supporters, non-indigenous and indigenous alike, have arrived from many other tribes from all across the country and Canada in support of the protests. The bulk of these protestors are located in the Seven Teepees Camp that is located on US Army Corps of Engineer’s land just north of the Cannonball River, meaning it is not on tribal property. They are protesting and camping without a permit which technically makes the protest illegal. They are cutting down trees for fires, they are driving vehicles over the land in an unorganized way and 3,000 people camping in that sort of space most surely is causing damage to government property.
There have been several rumors that have circulated among the protestors: Blocking cell service, cutting off water supply, and not allowing porta potties to be emptied.
Cell service: This agency has no authority to cut off cell service. It just isn’t possible. In fact, we have worked with Verizon to place a repeater in the area to bolster cell service. I think the most likely reason for cell disruption is that this is a rural area with spotty cell service in the best of times. Three thousand people, all of whom are trying to live stream and post on social media are simply tapping out the resource.
Water supply: Again, this agency has absolutely no authority to shut off a community’s water supply. It’s not possible. What we did do was remove some state health department assets (water truck, command trailers) that were intended to be used in support of Standing Rock Tribal Emergency Management. These assets were to remain on tribal lands but instead were placed on the Army Corps of Engineer’s land at the site of the unlawful protest. So basically what this amounted to was state assets being used to support an unlawful protest. It was completely untenable and an inappropriate use of state equipment. By the way, we have left an ambulance in the care and control of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to bolster their ability to deal with medical emergencies in the area.
Porta potties: I have confirmed through the ND Highway Patrol [that] in the past several days, troopers at the traffic control point have not seen any porta potty vendor trucks, and [that] any porta potty vendor seeking to enter the area would be allowed in.