Steamrolled in Energy Projects, Tribes Push for a Say

Native American leaders told lawmakers Thursday that the federal government’s decision-making processes leave little room for environmental justice. 

At a Thursday hearing of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous People of the United States, Ira Taken Alive, vice chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, told lawmakers that the federal government needs to “meaningfully consult” with tribes before forging ahead with laws or projects. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Seven years and three White House administrations into his tribe’s fight with the developers of the Dakota Access pipeline, a leader of the Standing Rock Sioux joined other representatives of Native peoples in telling a House subcommittee that their voices are still being sidelined on the laws or projects that affect them.

“The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has a history of dealing with U.S. government actions that do not take into consideration the profound to devastating impacts to our families and our communities,” Ira Taken Alive, vice chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, testified virtually Thursday morning.

Long before Dakota Access broke ground on the 1,172-mile pipeline that is still running without a proper permit or environmental review, there was the construction of five dams and a reservoir along the Missouri River in 1942. Taken Alive noted how that project “flooded 56,000 acres of our best reservation lands.”

“We are forced to sacrifice so others can gain,” Taken Alive said.

When it comes to the pipeline, the vice chair noted that Standing Rock’s opposition is not to energy development but to the threat against his people’s only source of drinking water. 

“There’s an executive order requiring meaningful tribal consultation. And in our experience, some of the agencies had counted making a phone call to our tribal office and leaving a voice message,” Taken Alive testified. “In our mind, that’s not meaningful consultation.”

Taken Alive interprets meaningful consultation as allowing the tribe to present its interests, concerns, expertise and perspective on how a project or law would affect the tribe today as well as future generations. It means elevating tribal voices early on in the decision making process. 

Several lawmakers at the hearing voiced support for the tribe’s position.

“Too often indigenous voices are silenced or left out of key policy decisions, and this is especially true in the environmental justice movement,” said Congressman Chuy Garcia, an Illinois Democrat. “I don’t need to remind everyone here that the exploitation of indigenous communities is directly tied to the exploitation of our natural resources, or that economic interests are always prioritized over the rights of tribal communities, or of our country’s history of broken treaties.”

Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico chair of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.

“When a tribal government wants a natural resource economy whether it be oil and gas, or coal, that is their right as a sovereign government entity,” she said Thursday. “It becomes a federal trust responsibility and an environmental justice problem, when an environmental community does not want those projects.”

Another topic explored at the hearing was assigning duty to clean up abandoned mines, wells and underground storage tanks. 

“We have to look at justice in many ways, and one of them is corrective action,” said Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. “We have a responsibility as members of congress to forge legislative efforts that are correcting, that take us away from that history of systemic discrimination.”

Melvin J. Baker, the chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council, testified how the reservation took environmental justice into their own hands. 

There are about 300 oil and gas sources of air pollution on the Southern Ute Reservation that are currently regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, but the agency only inspects the six largest of these once every five years.

In order to inspect the polluting sources more frequently, the tribe created its own Clean Air Act permitting program, which gives the tribe permitting, inspection and enforcement authority over major sources of air pollution on the reservation. The tribe is also in the process of developing its own Clean Water Act program, making the shift toward zero emissions and clean energy, as well as building a clean power plant with methane capture.  

“I think you’ve got a remarkable story of American innovation,” said Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas. “I think this committee and Congress can learn a lot about what you are trying to do.”

Baker told committee members that the tribe is better equipped to issue clean air operating permits than the EPA. 

“The tribes should be authorized to do this according to our values and our environmental standards which are higher than the federal standards,” Baker said. “We are the caretakers of our reservation.”

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