Screams of victory erupted on Sunday afternoon at Oceti Sakowin Camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it will not grant an easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline to be constructed under Lake Oahe on the Missouri River.
Although thousands of self-described "water protectors" from around the world celebrated the decision, they are hesitant to declare the pipeline dead, feeling instead that they have won the battle but not the war.
"It's a tremendous victory for Standing Rock, for the Oceti Sakowin, for the countless tribal nations and indigenous communities and millions of Americans and people across the world who hit the streets in support of Standing Rock, in support of protecting water; who basically shut down banks, shut down streets, sent letters and made calls. Thank you so much," said Dallas Goldtooth, lead organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. "This is not a clear-cut denial of the easement. It's just them saying that, for the remainder of this administration, there will not be an approval of the easement to cross the Missouri River."
The temporary decision will stand until the Corps conducts an environmental impact statement that will explore alternative routes for the pipeline. That process could take several months, pushing decisions onto a new presidential administration that is loudly supportive of increased oil infrastructure in the U.S.
"A more robust analysis of alternatives can be done and should be done ... before an easement is granted for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Missouri River on Corps land," Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy wrote in a letter dated Dec. 4.
The decision came on the heels of a five-month standoff that featured a number of North Coast tribal members and culminated with more than 500 protesters being doused by police with high-pressure water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures, a woman's arm being nearly blown off with an explosive and hundreds of people being shot with rubber bullets. In total, at least 550 protesters — including some from the North Coast — have been arrested since August.
The situation only recently began to unravel in the national media. The New York Times wrote an editorial bashing law enforcement for abusing its power and CNN aired footage of protesters being drenched by water hoses in 22-degree weather. Local news stations covered the suspension of a lead county sheriff for gross abuse of power and the refusal of some law enforcement agencies to assist. Add that to thousands of social media posts and increased coverage in local and regional news outlets — and it was clear the world was finally watching.
"Headlines of mass injuries, frigid water being sprayed at demonstrators in sub-freezing temperatures, and of rubber bullets and similar anti-riot weapons being directed at peaceful, unarmed civilians make it clear that this situation is only getting worse," North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama last week.
Huffman and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) requested an immediate meeting with Obama and the U.S. Department of Justice to "demand accountability for (the) alarming treatment of water protectors and peaceful demonstrators at the Dakota Access Pipeline."
By Thanksgiving, winter weather set in and tensions reached an all-time high. New water protectors arrived at Oceti Sakowin in droves. It was estimated that more than 8,000 people were in camp on Thanksgiving Day. As people left to go home, more would come, including a group of more than 2,000 U.S. veterans who arrived at Oceti Sakowin on Dec. 6 during a blizzard.
So far, nearly 20 inches of snowfall has been recorded in Cannon Ball, when the average for this time of year is about 7.5 inches. On the night of Dec. 5, temperatures reached 10 degrees with 40 mph winds.
"We need woodstoves and firewood," said one water protector who posed for a selfie bundled up in front of a snow covered camp. "We're staying."
Last week, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued a mandatory evacuation notice to protesors occupying Oceti Sakowin, the largest protest camp, saying the harsh winter conditions posed a threat to the safety of the camp's residents. Later, officials, including North Dakota State Emergency Services and the Morton County and Cass County sheriff's departments, said they had no plans to enforce the evacuation order.
"The idea that we're going to go push a whole lot of people off corps land for camping without permits, it's kind of ludicrous isn't it? What are we going to do, take all these forces, line them up and start writing them camping-without-a-permit citations? It's not going to happen," Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said during a Dec. 5 briefing. "There's a big political agenda here. That will have to work itself out. What our hope is, is that the federal government will come in and start dealing with the federal reservation on federal corps land."
Meanwhile, rumors that Energy Transfer Partners, the company that owns the Dakota Access Pipeline, continues to drill and construct the pipeline swirl, but are not true according to Goldtooth and other reports from leaders of the DAPL resistance.
Energy Transfer Partners released a statement to the press saying that it believes the decision to deny the easement is purely political and will only pose minor delays in the construction of the DAPL, a $3.7 billion project that is slated to transport 450,000 barrels of crude oil per day a total of 1,100 miles from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota to an existing distribution network in Illinois.
"The White House's directive today to the Corps for further delay is just the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions by an administration which has abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency," the statement reads. "As stated all along, (Energy Transfer Partners) and (Sunoco Logistics Partners) are fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this administration has done today changes that in any way."
Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II addressed protesters gathered at Standing Rock on Dec. 5. Archambault, who had called upon the nations tribal leaders to send help in August, thanked them for heeding his call, but asked them to go home and enjoy the winter with their families.
"I'm so appreciative for all of our visitors and everything you have done for us. It is important that everybody understands that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is grateful for your commitment and your passion in helping us stop this pipeline," he said. "We have a huge victory and we need to celebrate. We need to realize and understand that the pipeline is not going to go under Lake Oahe. The pipeline company may try to antagonize us and make us react and I tell you, if they do drill, which I don't think they will, they don't have an easement."
Archambault believes Energy Transfer Partners will not risk the project, which is 95 percent complete, by drilling without the easement; which he said would threaten all of the investors' money and their hopes at receiving an easement in the future.
"We have to be proud of what we did," Archambault said. "We have to be honored by the victory. It's time now. It's time to go home. I'm thankful and appreciative of you being here, but it doesn't do us any good to live in an unsafe environment ... ."
Although Archambault asked protectors to go home, many are not leaving. Some believe his message was a protective measure to reduce the liability of the tribe since winter has arrived and the harsh conditions in North Dakota can be dangerous.
A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe posted a video on Facebook in response to Archambault's statement, pleading with those protesters who could to stay until no further threat of the DAPL exists.
"The fight is not over," Goldtooth said. "We don't know what the next administration is going to do. The EIS process could delay for months. We hope this is the final push until we see this pipeline completely and utterly defeated."
Allie Hostler is a community outreach educator for the University of California Cooperative Extension and occasionally works as a freelance reporter for local media outlets. She spent time in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, back in September and wrote the Nov. 10 cover story, "We Travel in a Spiritual Way" about the protests for the Journal.