The Color of Climate

The Dakota Access Pipeline Shutdown Is a Bitter Win

Environmental justice activists are ‘cautiously optimistic’

Indigenous protesters march to the site of a sacred burial ground that was disturbed by the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Photo illustration. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

Environmental justice activists in the United States celebrated two monumental wins in the fight against fossil fuels this week. The construction of two fossil fuel pipelines, both threatening the lives of Black, indigenous, and poor people, was suddenly halted after several years of opposition from activists.

On Sunday, Dominion Power and Duke Energy announced the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) project, citing “ongoing delays and increasing cost uncertainty.” The pipeline was slated to run 600 miles through poor white communities in West Virginia and Virginia, as well as Black and indigenous communities in North Carolina.

The next day, a federal judge suspended construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers performs a thorough review of the project’s potential environmental impacts. The DAPL, planned by Energy Transfer Partners, is a 1,172-mile long project that threatens several Sioux tribes along its route from North Dakota to Illinois. In 2016, protests opposing the construction of the pipeline broke out across the United States, including a months-long sit-in at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation that attracted over 15,000 people. Energy Transfer Partners is seeking legal and administrative means to avoid shutting down and said they will appeal the judge’s ruling if they can’t avoid shutting down.

Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, tells OneZero that the “vindication” from the judge’s ruling on the DAPL “feels so damn gratifying.” For four years, he says, protesters were continually “sacrificing” their lives, time, and energy to stop the project.

The halting of the two pipelines is a monumental step — but it’s just the first in a long journey toward remediation.

Activists have long warned that construction of the pipelines and the transport of fossil fuels through them could threaten key sources of water for millions of people.

The ACP was slated to pass through Augusta County, Virginia, where the water is connected to the James and Shenandoah Rivers. Richmond, Virginia’s state capital, lies on the James River, and the Shenandoah connects to the Potomac River, which runs through Washington, D.C.

“Having that kind of water is a wonderful resource, but it also brings with it a huge responsibility to protect it,” says Nancy Sorrells, who lives in Augusta County. Pollution from construction vehicles needed to build the pipeline, and potential leaks from the pipeline, pose a serious contamination threat.

Water contamination “was the number one concern that people had” in North Carolina as well, says Donna Chavis, a senior fossil fuels campaigner for the environmental organization Friends of the Earth and a member of Lumbee tribe in Pembroke.

“They wanted to protect that, and the fact that they were not properly talked to and met with about that is just absurd.”

“Water is very much a part of the life of North Carolinians,” Chavis tells OneZero, “especially when you’re looking at the most impacted communities of indigenous, Black and other peoples of color.” In Robeson County, where Pembroke is located, indigenous people fish in the rivers for food, she says, so any contaminant in the water could eventually wind up in their bodies.

Over 1,700 miles away in North and South Dakota, the Dakota Access Pipeline runs under the Missouri River, which provides water for Sioux tribes in the region. The Standing Rock Indian Reservation spans 3,500 square miles over both states.

Goldtooth says indigenous people in the region depend on the Missouri River for their drinking water. “They wanted to protect that,” he says, “and the fact that they were not properly talked to and met with about that is just absurd.”

When they heard that these projects had either been canceled or suspended, activists responded with joy. Sorrells felt “justice has finally been served.” Chavis says hearing the news about the ACP felt like “pure jubilation.”

But their years-long struggles aren’t done. Sorrells, Chavis, and other environmental justice activists in the Mid-Atlantic are now calling on Duke Energy and Dominion Power to remediate the land that was destroyed in the initial stages of construction of the ACP. They have also raised concerns about another natural gas pipeline in the region — the Mountain Valley Pipeline — that is planned to run from northern West Virginia to southern Virginia.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is still in the works — it just can’t continue until it undergoes another environmental impact review. Goldtooth, however, wants to see the project completely shut down, and he wants Energy Transfer Partners to remove parts of the pipeline they’ve already put into the ground. He’s “cautiously optimistic” about this week’s news about the pipeline.

Still, these developments with the Atlantic Coast and Dakota Access pipelines are the latest in what he and other environmental justice activists see as the inevitable downfall of fossil fuels.

“The fossil fuel industry is on the ropes,” Goldtooth says. “It’s in its last gasps and it’s trying to scramble for any effort to remain viable. And we’re doing our damn best to make sure that we see a just transition away from fossil fuels into renewable, sustainable energy.”

To learn more about how communities of color and poor communities are fighting for a transition away from fossil fuels, check out these recent stories about the ACP and DAPL:

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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