Just two weeks after President Donald Trump ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to speed up its review of the Dakota Access pipeline—and a mere two months after the Obama administration halted construction—the "black snake" that the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies spent months fighting is officially revived. Construction of the DAPL could resume at any moment; oil could be flowing in a matter of months.
That's due to a letter sent yesterday by the Army Corps of Engineers that said it will issue an easement allowing the $3.8 billion, 1,100-mile pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe, the only section of the pipeline that has not been built. Construction was on hold after the Corps' December 4, 2016, decision to explore alternate routes for the pipeline. But on Tuesday, the Corps reversed its position, saying in court papers that "effective immediately," it is terminating the environmental impact statement (EIS).
The National Environmental Policy Act requires an EIS to determine a project's environment impact, but Douglas Lamont, a senior Army Civil Works official said in court papers, "I have determined that there is no cause for completing any additional environmental analysis."
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe plans to fight the ruling in court on the grounds that the EIS was wrongfully terminated.
"It appears that Trump and his administration are ignoring the law yet again," said Phillip Ellis, senior press secretary for Earthjustice, the environmental law group representing the tribe. "It's not over," he told me. "The tribe will file litigation and do everything legally possible to stop the construction of this pipeline. That being said, with this aggressive timeline by the Trump administration, you could start seeing construction (today)."
Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the Dallas-based company building the pipeline, is poised to resume the project immediately. But Ellis said the environmental review isn't optional.
"The environmental impact statement is legally required because of the significant risk posed to the tribe's sacred land," he told me. "The Trump administration is breaking the law on this. They can't change course because Trump wants them to. They have to provide a solid reason why they're reversing this decision, and they've failed to do that. That will be the core of our litigation against them."
The tribe has been fighting the pipeline in court for over two years. Last April, a small group set up a prayer camp along the water in protest of the pipeline. Within months, the camp had grown to a population of thousands as people from all over the country traveled to live at the camps and join in protest.
"We've got to remember the context of how this happened," said Ellis. "Thousands came together and stood in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe." In addition, the Obama administration set up consultations with tribes all over the country in an attempt to improve relationships and respect treaty rights.
"It appears that Trump is going to throw that all out the window," Ellis said.
Watch the VICELAND documentary on Standing Rock:
The pipeline is nearly done, with only the area crossing approximately 7.34 acres remains to be built. Lawyers for ETP said in court Monday that the pipeline could be finished in 60 to 90 days from the time construction starts up again, with oil flowing in about 83 days after that.
The concern for the tribe now is that construction could outpace litigation. "What we've tried to do all along is make the judge that's overseeing this case aware of the unique timeline on this," said Ellis.
Outside of court, protests against the DAPL are likely to continue. On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council voted to divest from Wells Fargo, an investor in the pipeline. And the sudden granting of the easement has not changed the rhetoric around the pipeline one iota. If ETP completes construction on the pipeline and oil starts flowing, the tribe will try to shut the pipeline down.
"The drinking water of millions of Americans is now at risk," said Dave Archambault II, the Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman, in a statement. "We are a sovereign nation and we will fight to protect our water… This pipeline was unfairly routed across our treaty lands. The Trump administration—yet again—is poised to set a precedent that defies the law and the will of Americans."
Graywolf, who runs the Southern California Chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM), spent a good deal of time living at the camps at Standing Rock and told me he plans to return.
"This is a small defeat in a big, huge, battle," he said. "It's a bitter one, yes, because we fought so hard. But it's showed us what we can do when we get together and stay together and this is what we have to continue. I'm not afraid to be on the front line. That's exactly where I'm going to be."
Graywolf told me the movement is still strong. A "No DAPL" event he led this past weekend in downtown Los Angeles, he said, attracted close to 5,000 people. "These issues are not just indigenous issues," he said. "Clean drinking water is not just our problem. It's everybody's problem."
A march on Washington is planned for March 10. Archambault is asking that supporters show up there instead of North Dakota. In the meantime, the tribe will continue the battle in court.
"Communities have the right to be represented in these processes," said Ellis. "They have the right to have their voice heard. Especially when it pertains to such sacred lands. To have this reversed in such an aggressive timeline—it's just not right. It's certainly not the way to continue this horrible treatment of tribe and treaty rights."
"As Native peoples, we have been knocked down again, but we will get back up," said Archambault. "We will rise above the greed and corruption that has plagued our peoples since first contact."
Cole Kazdin is a writer living in Los Angeles.