Veterans still arriving at Standing Rock after Army Corps freezes pipeline construction

Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War listen to Dakota Access Pipeline protest leaders Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. Army veteran Aaron Hughes, left, said 32 members of IVAW have participated in the protests off and on since October.


By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2016

CANNON BALL, N.D. – Veterans were still arriving at a main Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp Sunday afternoon when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told Sioux tribal leaders that it had temporarily halted construction of the oil pipeline.

After more than 100 days of protest, the Army Corps rejected an easement that would have given Energy Transfer Partners LP permission to continue to build the pipeline along its planned route under Lake Oahe, a large reservoir on the Missouri River about one-half mile from Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The easement is a legal agreement that gives the company the right to cross or use the Sioux land for a specific purpose.

Law enforcement and protesters had been calling for a decision on the easement. The decision came on the first day of “Veterans Stand for Standing Rock,” which brought 2,400 veterans from across the country to join the protest and build infrastructure to help protesters withstand the coming winter.

As of Sunday afternoon, nearly 1,000 veterans had registered at the Oceti Sakowin Camp near Cannon Ball, N.D. Anthony Diggs, spokesman for the group, said there were about 2,400, though the exact number wasn’t clear.

Diggs said some of the credit for the Army Corps decision should go to the veterans and the attention they brought with them.

“I think they saw 2,500 veterans showing up and the attention from media internationally,” he said. “I think they saw the world was paying attention and realized they had an issue.”

The protesters, who prefer to be called “water protectors,” celebrated the decision, erupting in cheers and holding their fists in the air. They have been claiming since protests started in August that the pipeline posed a risk for the Sioux tribe’s drinking water and treaty rights and could harm sacred sites. Veterans joined in the celebration.

“This changes the background for our visit 180 degrees,” Diggs said. “It’s done. It’s stopped.”

Army veteran Chris Condon, a member of a Sioux tribe in South Dakota, was a little more reserved about the news. He’s been living at the Oceti Sakowin Camp since August and has taken to the front lines multiple times, facing off with law enforcement.

“I have this feeling of, ‘What’s going to happen now?’” he said.

Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for civil works for the Army Corps, said the Corps would conduct an environmental impact study to consider alternate routes for the pipeline. She also said that the $3.8 billion pipeline was only temporarily halted and that the study would include public input.

Energy Transfer issued a statement late Sunday, saying the company is committed to finishing the pipeline without rerouting it around Lake Oahe.

“Nothing this administration has done today changes that in any way,” the statement reads.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said in a statement that he expected the decision to be reversed when President-elect Donald Trump enters office in January.

Trump has supported completing the pipeline, Reuters and other outlets have reported.

“It’s a good feeling, but I’m being gun-shy, you know?” Condon said of Sunday’s announcement.

Some veterans, including Condon, took to a hill overlooking the camp soon after the news broke, snapping photos on their cell phones and other devices.

Condon, 36, stood apart from the crowd, taking in the celebratory sounds -- yelps of excitement, drum circles and honking horns from thousands of his fellow protesters below – and reflected on the costs of the protest.

“I’m thinking back to everybody that was hurt in this whole process,” he said. “Injured or hurt or arrested.”

Working toward nonviolence

Before the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock effort began, organizers spoke with law enforcement Saturday to dispel tensions, according to a news release from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.

The arrival of the veterans -- along with a Dec. 5 deadline set by the Army Corps for protesters to leave the land -- added stress to the strained relationship between protesters and officers. Some veterans anticipated a face-off Monday with police.

Michael Woods, an organizer of the veterans’ group, has encouraged veterans to remain nonviolent, and Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said it would not physically remove people from the camp.

“A whole lot of people coming in here expecting to see some sort of confrontation on Dec. 5 are going to be pretty bored,” Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said Saturday in a news conference. “We are not pushing people off that land. We are not pushing people out of those camps.”

Cass County covers Fargo in southeast North Dakota. Officers from there have been working with other law enforcement agencies near the protest site.

On Sunday, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said it retreated farther back from Blackwater Bridge, which has been closed since late October when law enforcement pushed protesters back to the south of it. The department said protesters had to meet several conditions, including that they stay on the south side of the bridge, or they would be arrested.

Laney said in a statement later Sunday that he had a meeting with a tribal leader that was “hugely, hugely encouraging.”

Some veterans said Sunday they were advised that there were no planned confrontations with law enforcement.

The mission continues

Diggs, who arrived Sunday just after the announcement was made, said veterans would help out at the camp as needed through Wednesday.

The group’s Go Fund Me web page raised $1.12 million as of Sunday night, which will go toward reimbursing veterans for travel expenses and providing supplies for the protesters.

Navy veteran Jason Hamlen, 42, and Army veteran Matthew DeFalco, 29, made the 25-hour drive from Las Vegas on Saturday. “I’m here to help people,” DeFalco said.

“We came here as a call to action to do whatever they needed,” Hamlen said. “They want to be as peaceful as possible. They put a kabash on direct action as of right now. I’m willing to pound nails, wash dishes, whatever.”

People continued streaming into the camp after the announcement. As the sun set Sunday, the line stretched about one mile.

Condon said he and his family would stay, though he’s uncertain for how long.

At the camp, he is teaching basic first-aid to people going out on the front lines. He said it’s a way to use knowledge he picked up in the military. He served from 2007 to 2015 and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ll stay for however long I’m needed,” he said.

Reactions to the halt

Early Sunday afternoon, a few hundred veterans -- most of them outfitted in old uniforms -- gathered in a snow-covered field a couple of miles south of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Two large American flags flapped above the crowd.

The veterans circled several protest organizers who took turns welcoming them to the site.

When the speakers yelled, “Water is life” at the end of their talks, the group would chant back, “Water is life.”

“They’ve been nothing but welcoming and gracious and giving,” Hamlen said later. He and many of the veterans are staying in tents in the heart of the camp.

Just a few steps away from the group, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, spoke to reporters. Gabbard is a veteran of the Hawaii Army National Guard and has called on President Barack Obama to halt construction of the pipeline.

“It’s a pretty special thing to see the immediate connection between them,” Gabbard said of the veterans. “It doesn’t matter where they’re from, they’re all here answering the call of duty to stand and support the water protectors.”

She called the Sunday announcement “historic.”

Gabbard, who will return to Washington on Monday, said she was motivated to go to North Dakota by water issues in her own state. In 2013, the Navy’s Red Hill fuel tank leaked 27,000 gallons of jet fuel that threatened a nearby aquifer on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Also noting the water crisis in Flint, Mich., she said the issue of water safety wasn’t limited to Standing Rock.

“That’s what got me involved in politics and organizing a community as a team,” Gabbard said. “This is a deeply personal and longstanding cause for me. People are gathered here from all over and are already sharing how to continue to take action in their communities.”

The decision drew reactions of disappointment from Energy Transfer and organizations that support the pipeline, including the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce and the South Dakota Petroleum and Propane Marketers Association.

The pipeline, which would extend 1,172 miles and move about 470,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois every day, was nearly finished. About $1 billion has been spent for equipment, Energy Transfer has said.

“This purely political decision has undermined our nation’s regulatory structure and sent a chilling message to those looking to invest in our nation’s infrastructure network,” Ed Wiederstein, chairman of Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, wrote in an email.

Andy Peterson, president of the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, said it was “deeply concerning” for future business investments in the state.

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

A few hundred veterans gathered Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016 in a field south of a Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp near Cannon Ball, N.D. to hear welcoming remarks from protest leaders. A couple of veterans flew large flags above the crowd.