CANNON BALL, N.D. — Protesters celebrated a major victory in their push to reroute the Dakota Access oil pipeline away from a tribal water source but pledged to remain camped on federal land in North Dakota anyway, despite Monday’s government deadline to leave.
Hundreds of people at the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, encampment cheered and chanted “mni wichoni” — “water is life” in Lakota Sioux — after the Army Corps of Engineers refused Sunday to grant the company permission to extend the pipeline beneath a Missouri River reservoir.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its supporters argue that extending the project beneath Lake Oahe would threaten the tribe’s water source and cultural sites. The segment is the last major sticking point for the four-state, $3.8 billion project.
“The whole world is watching,” said Miles Allard, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux. “I’m telling all our people to stand up and not to leave until this is over.”
Despite the deadline, authorities say they won’t forcibly remove the protesters.
The company constructing the pipeline, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, released a statement Sunday night slamming the Army Corps’ decision as politically motivated and alleging that President Barack Obama’s administration was determined to delay the matter until he leaves office.
“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 company said.
President-elect Donald Trump, a pipeline supporter, will take office in January, although it wasn’t immediately clear what steps his administration would be able to take to reverse the Army Corps’ latest decision or how quickly that could happen.
That uncertainty, Allard said, is part of the reason the protesters won’t leave.
“We don’t know what Trump is going to do,” Allard said.
Assistant Secretary for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy said in a news release that her decision was based on the need to consider alternative routes for the pipeline’s crossing. Her full decision doesn’t rule out that it could cross under the reservoir or north of Bismarck.
“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do,” Darcy said. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”
North Dakota’s leaders criticized the decision, with Gov. Jack Dalrymple calling it a “serious mistake” that “prolongs the dangerous situation” of having several hundred protesters who are camped out on federal land during cold, wintry weather. U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer said it’s a “very chilling signal” for the future of infrastructure in the United States.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Sunday that the Department of Justice will “continue to monitor the situation” and stands “ready to provide resources to help all those who can play a constructive role in easing tensions.”
“The safety of everyone in the area – law enforcement officers, residents and protesters alike — continues to be our foremost concern,” she added.
Carla Youngbear of the Meskwaki Potawatomi tribe made her third trip from central Kansas to be at the protest site.
“I have grandchildren, and I’m going to have great grandchildren,” she said. “They need water. Water is why I’m here.”
Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, whose department has done much of the policing for the protests, said that “local law enforcement does not have an opinion” on the easement and that his department will continue to “enforce the law.”
U.S. Secretary for the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement that the Corps’ “thoughtful approach … ensures that there will be an in-depth evaluation of alternative routes for the pipeline and a closer look at potential impacts.”
Earlier Sunday, an organizer with Veterans Stand for Standing Rock said tribal elders had asked the military veterans not to have confrontations with law enforcement officials, adding the group is there to help out those who’ve dug in against the project.
About 250 veterans gathered about a mile from the main camp for a meeting with organizer Wes Clark Jr., the son of former Democratic presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark. The group had said about 2,000 veterans were coming, but it wasn’t clear how many actually arrived.
“We have been asked by the elders not to do direct action,” Wes Clark Jr. said. He added that the National Guard and law enforcement have armored vehicles and are armed, warning: “If we come forward, they will attack us.”
Instead, he told the veterans, “If you see someone who needs help, help them out.”
Some veterans will take part in a prayer ceremony Monday, during which they’ll apologize for historical detrimental conduct by the military toward Native Americans and ask for forgiveness, Clark said. He also called the veterans’ presence “about right and wrong and peace and love.”
Authorities moved a blockade from the north end of the Backwater Bridge with the conditions that protesters stay south of it and come there only if there is a prearranged meeting. Authorities also asked protesters not to remove barriers on the bridge, which they have said was damaged in the late October conflict that led to several people being hurt, including a serious arm injury.
“That heavy presence is gone now and I really hope in this de-escalation they’ll see that, and in good faith. the leadership in those camps will start squashing the violent factions,” Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said in a statement, reiterating that any violation will “will result in their arrest.”
Steven Perry, a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran who’s a member of the Little Traverse Bay band of Odawa Indians in Michigan, spoke of one of the protesters’ main concerns: that the pipeline could pollute drinking water. “This is not just a native issue,” he said, “This is an issue for everyone.”
Associated Press writers Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis and Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.