After legal disappointment, North Dakota pipeline protesters vow to fight on

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A protester demonstrates against the Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. September 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Andrew Cullen - RTX2OVHV

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we return to the months-long stand-off over the building of a controversial pipeline in North Dakota. It’s intended to carry oil from the state’s Bakken region across South Dakota and Iowa to an existing pipeline in Illinois, which is on hold after conflicting government rulings.

Lisa Desjardins has the story.

LISA DESJARDINS: The protests began in April, when members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe complained that a spill from the pipeline would contaminate the Missouri River and lakes near their lands. The Sioux also have said construction would harm sacred tribal grounds.

In recent weeks, they have been joined by other Native American tribes and environmental groups. The company and some local officials have said the pipeline will create jobs and boost energy production in the U.S.

Our William Brangham is reporting near the Standing Rock Reservation.

I spoke to him a short time ago and asked him what the immediate reaction was like today.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Yes, this has been a day that nobody here really wanted to see happen.

I don’t know if you can see behind me, but this is the camp. This is the main area where people have been gathering for weeks, and this is the worst possible news initially.

Interestingly, the word is slowly starting to trickle out. I mean, in fact, many people I talked to this afternoon, I was the one telling them the news about the hearing, because the cell phone service here is really bad, and so people are not getting the news as quickly as some of us are.

But the general sense was that people were really disappointed. There’s been a sense of resignation. Many people feared that this would be the judge’s ruling, that they thought that the Corps would be allowed to do this and that the energy company would be allowed to put the pipeline in.

When the news also came that the Justice Department is considering stepping in and putting a stop to this, that only gave people a certain level of hope.

The people that I talked to said they think this is going to be an ongoing, protracted battle for weeks, months, maybe years to come.

LISA DESJARDINS: William, specifically, what is the tribe’s complaint?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The principal argument the Standing Rock Tribe has is that the construction of this pipeline is going to do, one, it’s going to destroy a lot of very, very important cultural sites to them, burial grounds, historic meeting places for their people, and, number two, that the pipeline, which, although it is not going to go through tribal lands, it is just a short distance away.

The pipeline will go underneath the river. And many people are concerned that if a pipeline that is carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil goes underneath the river, that there could be some sort of a rupture and, if that happens, that might spill oil into their primary source of drinking water.

And so that’s been the main concern, that the construction of the pipeline is going to destroy lands that are very, very important to them and that the potential for contamination is enormous.

LISA DESJARDINS: This would be a very significant pipeline, carrying about half of current Bakken oil production. How is the industry responding?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The company that is building the pipeline has argued all along that they followed the rules, they filled out the right permits, they got all the right permissions, they did the proper surveys, and that they have broken no laws whatsoever.

In fact, that’s not really been the allegation thus far. The tribe’s main concern has been with the Army Corps of Engineers, who granted one of the main permits for the pipeline to go in.

And the Corps says too that they did all the proper consultations. But the oil company argues also that they think this is an important economic engine for the area. They say there will be jobs in construction of the pipeline, jobs in maintaining the pipeline, and that they say, look, we still live in an oil-based society, and if oil needs to get from the Bakken oil fields to market, this pipeline is the delivery device for that.

LISA DESJARDINS: It seems there are really two parts to this fight, the court battle and on-the-ground protests.

William, explain what happens now in each.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Obviously, with regards to the courts, who knows how that’s going to play out. The Justice Department may step in forcefully on this. We will have to wait and see on that.

As far as what happens here on the ground, we have heard from some people who’ve said, regardless of what happens with the courts, with the rulings, with the Army Corps, there is a certain group of people here who argue they will do everything that they can to not let this pipeline go forward.

We have heard people talking about the possibility of physically putting themselves in the way of the construction equipment, in the way of the workers’ camps.

And how widespread that sentiment is, I don’t really know. And we will see in the next days and weeks, if the construction really does take off, whether or not those actions come true.

But there is a minority of people here, at least, that will do everything they possibly can to try to stop this from going forward.

LISA DESJARDINS: Our William Brangham, speaking with us from North Dakota, thank you. And we look forward to seeing your reports in coming days.

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