FORT YATES, N.D.—Phyllis Young grew up in the 1950s in the fertile lowlands along the Missouri river in North Dakota. She drank from the river's fast-flowing waters and ate what her family grew on the three and a half acres it owned along its banks.
When Young was 10, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Oahe Dam to tame the Missouri and generate electricity. The dam flooded her family's land, leaving them homeless and destitute. When her grandfather, a World War II Army veteran, realized what was happening, he sang his death song.
"I know hunger and I know homelessness in the national interest," said Young, a former councilwoman for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. "And never again will I allow my family to suffer the way my grandfather did."
Young is one of many organizers of the Oceti Sakowin or Seven Council Fires camp, where thousands of Native Americans from across the country have gathered in solidarity over the past month to protest the Dakota Access pipeline, after it was approved by the Army Corps in July.
The protesters are trying to raise their collective voices loudly enough to stop the four-state pipeline, which would pump as much as 17,000 gallons of oil per minute beneath the Missouri on its way from the Bakken oil fields to Illinois. On Friday a judge will decide whether to temporarily halt construction.
If the project is able to proceed as planned the pipe will cross the Missouri half a mile upstream of the Standing Rock reservation. The river is the main source of drinking and irrigation water for the 3,600 square-mile reservation and its 8,200 residents, 40 percent of whom live below the poverty level.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that oil from a spill at that Missouri River crossing could reach the tribe's drinking water intake pipe at Fort Yates, the tribal headquarters and county seat, within several hours. The aging six-inch pipe extends like a giant, corroded straw into the main current of the river, slurping up its muddy water and carrying it a quarter mile into the 50-year old plant. There, it is filtered and purified in giant, rusting tanks before it is piped into a water tower overlooking the town.
"There would be very little time to determine if a spill or leak affecting surface water is occurring, to notify water treatment plants and to have treatment plant staff on site to shut down the water intakes," Philip Strobel, National Environmental Policy Act regional compliance director for the EPA, wrote to the Army Corps before the Corps approved the project. In that letter, Strobel urged the Army Corps to consider other available routes because of that threat and other environmental justice issues.
If a spill was ever detected when no one was on duty, Steven Willard, a plant operator at the water treatment facility in Fort Yates, would likely be the one to get the call to shut off the intake pipe. He lives closer to the plant than any of his co-workers but worries that the oil could enter the facility before he could shut things down.
"We don't have a treatment system to remove oil," said Willard, 46, a member of the White Earth Chippewa tribe who has lived in Standing Rock half his life. "The only way to get the oil out is to shut the plant down, drain it, and clean it by hand."
Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, declined to comment, but has previously said it is "constructing this pipeline in accordance with applicable laws, and the local, state and federal permits and approvals we have received." The company and industry groups have assured opponents it will use state-of-the-art leak detection technology.
In a recent op-ed in the Bismarck Tribune, for instance, Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the Dakota Access "will have the latest technologies and monitoring systems to help prevent releases and will be constructed 90 feet below the riverbed to ensure nothing may reach the river."
Federal data has revealed limitations of leak detection technology in recent years, especially in detecting smaller spills, which are far more common. Between 2002 and July 2012, remote sensors detected only 5 percent of U.S. pipeline spills. The public detected far more.
"I know it will have monitors and shut-off valves, but look at South Dakota," he said of a leak that occurred at the recently completed Keystone I pipeline in April. "It wasn't discovered by their monitors, but by a farmer who saw black stuff coming out of the ground."
A Community With a History of Struggle
Fort Yates, a collection of trailer homes, boarded storefronts and government offices, is perhaps best known as the site where Sitting Bull was buried. The Lakota spiritual leader was shot in 1890 during a botched arrest by government officials who feared he would join the "Ghost Dance" movement and help unify marginalized tribes throughout the region.
More than a century later, the Standing Rock Sioux remain one of the poorest, most disenfranchised communities in the nation. The defacto heart of the town is the White Buffalo Super Valu grocery store, where kids sit in the back of dusty pickup trucks waiting for their parents to return. Behind the store, a grid of gravel streets, forlorn homes and sidewalks clogged with dumpsters extends towards the Lake Oahe reservoir.
The high school graduation rate in Sioux County, the northern half of the Standing Rock reservation that includes Fort Yates, is just 14 percent, according to a recent demographic report. And drugs and alcohol are rampant, fueling the feeling of desperation. "If we don't get a handle on methamphetamines, it's going to bring the tribe to its knees," said Linda Lawrence, superintendent of the Standing Rock Community School.
"It's been two years since the last suicide," Robyn Baker, superintendent of the Fort Yates Public School, said of her student population. "That's not very long but it seems like a long time for us."
Baker and Lawrence say 20 percent of the student population is homeless, although an exact count is difficult. Many families choose doubling up in single-family trailer homes over public housing. Many of the schools' faculty and staff commute from Bismarck because it's difficult to secure a mortgage to buy or build on the reservation.
"We did not do this to ourselves," said David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock tribe. "It was the injustices, the infringements on our rights, that took place over and over."
In an 1868 treaty, the government granted the Sioux considerably more land only to take much of it away less than a decade later when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. Then came the Oahe Dam in the early 1960s, inundating 55,000 acres of the tribe's best farmland. "A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history," a federal court later concluded of the government's treatment of the Sioux.
Conversations with members of the tribe reveal deep resentment and mistrust of the government, and a belief that it is no coincidence the pipeline has been routed near their land.
The original route for the proposed pipeline crossed the Missouri River further north, upstream of Bismarck, the state capital, but the route was changed when the company said it found that the new route near Standing Rock was shorter and less costly. Also listed as a concern was the close proximity to wells providing Bismarck's drinking water supply.
"A statement like that says they don't believe it's safe, so they wanted it moved to the lowest impact area which they consider to be the reservation," Willard said. "Well, we're just as important. My kids drink this water."
A newer, larger capacity plant 40 miles downstream at the southern edge of the reservation will supply Fort Yates with its drinking water when a water pipeline currently under construction comes online next year. The added distance downriver could give him and his colleagues an additional three hours to respond to an oil spill.
The added time, however, is of little consolation, Willard said. Neither is the Army Corps' statement in approving the project that it "does not anticipate any impact to water supplies along its route."
'They Want a Different Outcome'
The tribe's concerns about their water may be a local issue, but its fight has resonated far beyond this one reservation. For weeks, Archambault has greeted representatives from tribes across the nation. More than 120 tribes have sent representatives to the camp. Navajo came from Arizona where a botched mine cleanup polluted their water. The Prairie Island Indian Community came from Minnesota, where the federal government flooded sacred burial mounds and sited a nuclear power plant and fuel storage facility near their land.
"That is why everybody is here," Archambault said. "They want a different outcome."
Last weekend, demonstrators tried to stop construction before the company destroyed a string of burial and other cultural sites. A federal judge declined the tribe's call for an emergency restraining order to protect those sites. The tribe is now seeking a preliminary injunction to halt construction on undisturbed sections of the pipeline until the case can be tried in court. That is the decision expected by the end of the day on Friday.
Even if the tribe loses, Young has no intentions of backing down.
"Clean drinking water is essential for all life," she said, "We intend to fight to keep it that way."