On 6 November 2016, web site InsideSources.com published an editorial (“What the Dakota Access Pipeline Protesters Aren’t Telling You”) that was picked up and run by newspapers across the United States. The piece appeared in opinion sections days before the filing of a motion by Energy Transfer Partners [PDF], and made a variety of rebuttals to what the author said were claims and demands made by Dakota Access Pipeline protesters.
The author of the piece, Shawn McCoy, was bylined as “publisher of InsideSources.com,” with little biographical information accompanying the widely-published op-ed. However, McCoy’s footprint in online media is rather large, both as a political operative for the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign as well as apparent author of native content for politically-aligned groups like the Taxpayers’ Protection Alliance (funded by similar groups like Americans for Job Security).
The editorial began by suggesting that DAPL protests are celebrity-driven, populated by paid agitators, and maintaining that if the “full story” was aired that sympathy for the Native American tribes involved “would vanish”:
The activists tell an emotionally charged tale of greed, racism and misbehavior by corporate and government officials. But the real story of the Dakota Access Pipeline was revealed in court documents in September, and it is nothing like the activists’ tale. In fact, it is the complete opposite.
There were few details about celebrities or paid agitators behind the protest, no citations backing claims of violence perpetrated by the protesters, no examples of the “emotionally charged tale” being told, and no details whatsoever about the “real story” that had apparently been revealed in court documents in September 2016. Without references or concrete examples, none of the quoted material could be properly checked for accuracy.
The record shows that Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, spent years working diligently with federal, state and local officials to route the pipeline safely and with the fewest possible disruptions. The contrast between the protesters’ claims and the facts on record is stunning.
Protesters claim that the pipeline was “fast-tracked,” denying tribal leaders the opportunity to participate in the process. In fact, project leaders participated in 559 meetings with community leaders, local officials and organizations to listen to concerns and fine-tune the route. The company asked for, and received, a tougher federal permitting process at sites along the Missouri River. This more difficult procedure included a mandated review of each water crossing’s potential effect on historical artifacts and locations.
One specific portion of the above-quoted text attributed the term “fast-tracked” to “protesters.” In a July 2016 statement, that language was used by Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe:
The Corps puts our water and the lives and livelihoods of many in jeopardy. We have laws that require federal agencies to consider environmental risks and protection of Indian historic and sacred sites. But the Army Corps has ignored all those laws and fast-tracked this massive project just to meet the pipeline’s aggressive construction schedule.
According to the piece, the pipeline’s owners, Energy Transfer Partners, spent years working with community interests to construct its route. No evidence was provided of the purported 559 meetings between ETP and the community, but going by the 10 July 2014 date of early coverage in the Des Moines Register, 631 days elapsed between the initial query and 1 April 2016, when DAPL protests began. By that (admittedly loose) metric, ETP would have participated in community meetings nearly once a day, including on weekends.
The editorial continued on by saying that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers met 389 times with leaders from 55 tribes and referenced a year and a half of “stonewalling” by tribal leaders:
Protesters claim that the Standing Rock Sioux pursued meetings with an unresponsive Army Corps of Engineers. Court records show that the roles in that story were in fact reversed. The corps alerted the tribe to the pipeline permit application in the fall of 2014 and repeatedly requested comments from and meetings with tribal leaders only to be rebuffed over and over. Tribal leaders ignored requests for comment and canceled meetings multiple times.
But a 4 August 2016 suit filed by the tribes opposing the pipeline [PDF] specifically contradicted that claim:
On February 17, 2015, the Corps sent the Standing Rock Tribal Historic Preservation Office (“THPO”) a generic form letter seeking to initiate consultation under §106 on the Lake Oahe crossing component of DAPL. The THPO responded immediately and forcefully … The THPO committed the Tribe to full participation in the § 106 process, and “recommend[ed] a full TCP (Traditional Cultural Property) and archaeological Class III cultural Resource Survey to be completed prior to any mitigation that would take place,” using tribal monitors.
The Corps did not immediately respond, and in the months that followed, both the THPO and the Tribal Chairman followed up with numerous additional letters to the Corps outlining concerns about cultural impacts, and seeking to engage the Corps in the good-faith consultation process required by § 106. See, e.g., Ex. 7 at 1 (April 8, 2015 letter from THPO) (“To date we have not received any specific communications or correspondence in reference to any of our concerns addressed” in previous letters); Ex. 8 at 1 (August 19, 2015 letter from Tribal Chairman) (“The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe expects the required government-to-government consultation and environmental and cultural resource review processes to be followed with respect to Dakota Access. However, as of the present time, I have not been contacted by your office on this matter.”)
The closest to a source for the “389 meetings” claim we could locate originated with StandingRockFactChecker.com, a web site devoted to advocating for the construction of the pipeline. From its “About” page:
The Standing Rock Fact Checker is a project of the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now (MAIN) – a partnership of more than 40 civic, business, labor and agricultural groups who support the economic development and energy security benefits associated with infrastructure projects in the Midwest.
An October 2016 post from that site reiterated many of the same core points as the editorial quoted above:
The protest has not been peaceful whatsoever and it is blatantly irresponsible for any Dakota Access protestors to continue to perpetuate this claim.
The two-year process was not ‘fast-track’: “There are at least two grounds for demanding a full environmental review of this pipeline, instead of the fast-track approvals it has received so far.”
Also according to the editorial, “the company is paying to relocate the tribe’s water intake to a new spot 70 miles from the location of the contested pipeline crossing,” implying that Energy Transfer Partners had already acceded to the desires of the protesters:
The pipeline route was adjusted based on concerns expressed by locals — including other tribal leaders — who met with company and Army Corps of Engineers officials. The court record reveals that the Standing Rock Sioux refused to meet with corps officials to discuss the route until after site work had begun. That work is now 77 percent completed at a cost of $3 billion.
On 22 November 2016, Reuters reported on the efforts to relocate the water intake spot from its planned location:
The reservation, which spans North and South Dakota, currently gets water 20 miles away from the pipeline’s planned location … The Standing Rock Sioux say the new supply point is not enough to ease their concerns over the pipeline. The developer behind the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners LP (ETP.N), has vowed not to reroute the line.
“Just because the new intake is 70 miles away doesn’t mean our water is still not threatened,” said David Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
Reuters addressed the funding of the new water intake point, but did not say whether ETP was responsible. After noting that the project began in 2009 (five years before DAPL), the article added that the water treatment plant had been in the works for years before that:
The project, which has received little attention in the months-long fight over the Dakota Access pipeline, has been a goal for the Sioux for more than a decade. It was first funded in 2009 … The Sioux received about $30 million from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to build a new water treatment plant, pump station, 5 million-gallon storage tank and several pipelines to feed fresh water to roughly 10,000 reservation residents.
The op-ed continues:
In response to a lawsuit filed by the Standing Rock Sioux, the court documented “dozens of attempts” by the corps to consult with the tribe. It documented the legal and proper approval process the corps used to permit all of the contested construction sites the tribe claimed were improperly permitted. It even documented evidence that the corps had exceeded the minimum legal requirements during its earnest and lengthy efforts to receive the input of tribal leaders on the pipeline.
This appears to reference a 9 September 2016 story from the Bismarck Tribune, reporting that three federal agencies stepped in to halt construction just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation just after a federal court judge ruled to allow work on the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue:
The judge wrote the corps made “dozens of attempts” to communicate with the tribe about historical artifacts near the river, and the tribe “largely refused to engage in its consultations. It chose instead to hold out for more — namely, the chance to conduct its own cultural surveys over the entire length of the pipeline.”
The tribe did provide timely and extensive comments earlier this year on a draft environmental assessment, and the corps and tribe held several meetings to discuss the cultural surveys, the judge noted.
Finally, the piece claimed that DAPL protesters “may have a tight grip on media coverage of the pipeline, but they have a demonstrably loose grip on the facts.” Once again, however, no specific instances in which the tribes put out factually inaccurate information were referenced, nor was evidence provided to back the claim that the media favored the tribal narrative over any other.
Although the “Standing Rock” editorial purports to provide a balanced look at the ongoing dispute over DAPL, it lacks substantiation for almost all of its claims. Without specific references to the purported circumstances described, ensuring that the narrative is factually accurate remains incredibly difficult.