Judge Orders New Impact Report on Dakota Access Pipeline

WASHINGTON (CN) — Years after the Dakota Access Pipeline fueled outrage across the country, the government has been ordered to prepare a new report on environmental impacts — one opponents warn will be devastating.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled against the the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday, repeating a finding he has made before that the government’s seizure of tribal lands to construct the pipeline remains dubious under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Unrebutted expert critiques regarding leak-detection systems, operator safety records, adverse conditions, and worst-case discharge mean that the easement approval remains ‘highly controversial’ under NEPA,” Boasberg wrote. “As the court thus cannot find that the Corps has adequately discharged its duties under that statute, it will remand the matter to the agency to prepare an environmental impact statement.”

Standing Rock supporters are pictured here in a 2016 demonstration against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline beneath the Oahe Reservoir on the Missouri River. (Courthouse News Service photo/LAURA LUNDQUIST)

In the lawsuit filed nearly four years ago by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Boasberg already found in 2017 that the government failed to consider public warnings about flaws in the fossil fuel project that could lead to an oil spill. Slow leaks were of particular concern as the pipeline would not detect leaks representing 1% or less of the pipe’s flow rate.

This means that about 25,200 gallons “could be released continuously, over a long period of time, without detection,” experts have warned, as quoted in Wednesday’s opinion.

Boasberg said questions about the leak-detection systems and other key issues such as worst-case discharge have gone unanswered, despite previous orders to prepare environmental reports.

The ruling also describes concern by experts that harsh North Dakota winters will hamper response efforts in the event of a spill.

Boasberg did not go so far as to strike down the permits, instead ordering the government to prepare an environmental impact statement concerning the initial reporting flaws, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

“As it has done before in this case, the court will order the parties to brief the issue of whether the easement should be vacated during the remand,” the opinion states.

President Donald Trump directed the issuance of the pipeline on his second day in office, reversing an Obama-era directive, and construction was completed by summer 2017.

Originally a $3.8 billion project, the pipeline was designed to carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, snaking 1,200 miles across several waterways. It faced a series of legal challenges in the lead up to breaking ground and continues to fight court battles prompted by controversy over seizing tribal land for construction.

From first filing, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has pushed for a comprehensive environmental report like the judge ordered Wednesday.

“It’s humbling to see how actions we took four years ago to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices ultimately affect this planet,” Tribe Chairman Mike Faith said in a statement responding to the decision.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to a request for comment.

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