In a stunning win for the environmental justice movement, a court just ordered that the Dakota Access Pipeline must be shut down.
The U.S. District Court for Washington, DC, ruled on Monday that an important federal permit that the Army Corps of Engineers granted to the pipeline’s developer, Energy Transfer Partners, was in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Judge James Boasberg found that the permit must be scrapped, and that the 1,172-mile-long crude oil pipeline must cease operations and be emptied of oil within a month. It’s unclear if the ruling will be appealed.
The order came in response to a lawsuit that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe first filed in 2016, at the height of the mass protests against the pipeline on their reservation. The tribe alleged that the project would pollute the primary source of water they rely on for drinking, fishing, and cultural ceremonies.
In March, Judge Boasberg found that the Army Corps’ permit didn’t fully consider experts’ concerns that the pipeline could leak oil into Lake Oahe and ruled that the agency must produce an in-depth environmental impact statement. Now, the judge has ruled that because of the “seriousness” of the permit’s error, the project does not meet the requirements necessary to allow it to keep pumping oil from North Dakota into Illinois.
“It took four long years, but today justice has been served at Standing Rock,” Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman, who represents the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said in a statement. “If the events of 2020 have taught us anything, it’s that health and justice must be prioritized early on in any decision-making process if we want to avoid a crisis later on. ”
The significance of this order can’t be overstated. If the pipeline spills—something Energy Transfer Partners pipelines has a history—it would compromise the Missouri River, which is the primary water source for the Standing Rock Sioux nation and millions of others downstream. As experts advise that regular handwashing is an important way to quell the spread of the covid-19 pandemic, access to water is all the more important.
The win also comes as the Trump administration is attempting to weaken clean water protections and the National Environmental Policy Act at large while bolstering the oil industry. To the administration, the ruling is a big “fuck you.”
Dallas Goldtooth, who leads the Keep It in the Ground Campaign of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said this decision shows how important that act, which includes requirements to consider impacts of energy projects on tribal rights and resources, is to indigenous communities.
“This decision…just highlights the significance of treaty rights and highlights the significance of environmental justice issues as covered under NEPA,” he told Earther.
Hasselman expects that Energy Transfer Partners will “surely” appeal the court’s order, first at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and “then I assume a run at Supreme Court,” she told Earther in an email.
Chase Iron Eyes, lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, said he expects both the appeal from Energy Transfer Partners and the court’s decision on that appeal to be made by before the August 5th deadline to drain the pipeline. “We have to remain vigilant,” he told Earther in an email.
That means it’s unclear whether or not the pipeline project will truly be scrapped altogether, but the court’s ruling is still a victory. “Expecting that appeals are most likely going to happen doesn’t negate the need to celebrate,” said Goldtooth.
The ruling came just one day after energy giants Duke and Dominion cancelled the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, delivering another victory to the environmental justice movement. Both wins, Goldtooth said, “show the power of grassroots organizing.”
“We would not have gotten these decisions on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline or the Dakota Access Pipeline if it wasn’t for frontline communities mobilizing,” he said.
Updated: 7/6/2020, 1:39 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to include comments from Goldtooth and Hasselman.
Updated: 7/6/2020, 5:10 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to include comments from Iron Eyes.