KATELYN MAE PETRIN
A peaceful march makes its way along the Mississippi River after water walker Saundi Kloeckener led a water ceremony advocating #NoDAPL.
You might have noticed conversation online lately about #NoDAPL, a movement against the construction of an oil pipeline. You may also have seen St. Louisans hosting, or planning to host, three local events to support the tribes at Sioux Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, where thousands have gathered to resist the construction of the pipeline. And you might be wondering: Does this issue have anything to do with my city?
In the eyes of pipeline opponents, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”
The company building the pipeline is Dakota Access, LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners. According to its website, the North Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.7 billion pipe that would run 1,172 miles from North Dakota to Illinois, transporting approximately 470,000 barrels of oil per day
. The route as currently proposed crosses the Missouri River in North Dakota, as well as Lake Oahe, the reservation’s main source of drinking water.
The project has drawn controversy for its potential to harm river ecosystems and Native American reservations; its necessity has also been questioned. People have spoken against the project nationally in the past few weeks.
St. Louisans are taking part — both in North Dakota and locally.
Basmin Nadra drove from St. Louis to join the protesters at the Standing Rock reservation. There she participated in a ceremony, she writes in an email, “to honor spirits angered by further desecration” caused by construction. At that ceremony, Nadra received a bottle of water “infused with the healing energy from that gathering.” She brought it back to St. Louis to add to the Missouri River. “Water carries memory,” she writes, and “blessed water has healing energy.”
Saundi Kloeckener is a local water walker, which means she participates in an Ojibwe prayer that asks for water to be “safe, clean, and cared for.” People collect drinkable water from clean, unpolluted areas of river, she explains, and “take the water that’s alive, that has a memory, and add it to the dead water so that it will remember what it’s supposed to be like.”
When Nadra adds the water from Standing Rock to the Missouri River, it will follow similar spiritual intent: to heal the local river, which Kloeckener says is significantly less clean than Dakotan water due to local industrial plants.
And this ceremony is just one of the ways that Standing Rock and St. Louis are connected.
Nadra is a member of Native Women’s Care Circle, a group that promotes the health and welfare of the Native American community in St. Louis. She says she’s been conscious of the environment from an early age thanks to the influence of an elder, whose father was a coal miner. She’s been an activist of various stripes for years, and has been particularly active in the past two or three.
In many ways, Nadra stresses, what she and her fellow Native Americans are doing is not new. “Indigenous people have been on the frontlines of environmental justice since the European invasion,” she says. And even the Dakota Access Pipeline has been controversial for months, but only recently reached wider consciousness with the public. “It’s just that because it’s impacting more people, more people are getting involved,” Nadra explains.
For Native Americans, what's at stake is both personal and spiritual. The U.S. government has a history of ignoring and breaking treaties made to protect Native American land, and Nadra says that this pipeline is no different. Last week, members of Standing Rock tried to file a temporary restraining order after construction bulldozers destroyed protected historical land and objects. The motion was denied. Later, the Obama administration announced that the project would be temporarily halted. Burial areas, sacred spaces, and land with spiritual significance could all be affected by construction, the tribe argues.
Dakota Access says on its website, “As an operating principle, Dakota Access Pipeline is committed to working with individual landowners to make accommodations, minimize disruptions, and achieve full restoration of impacted land.” But those at Standing Rock say that so far, the company has not made good on that promise.
Dakota Access did not respond to a request for comment as of Monday.
The crossing of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers (located in St. Louis) has spiritual significance to Native Americans as well.
“It is probably, I think, the most powerful confluence in the country,” Kloeckener explains. “If the veins of your body are the water in our earth, where that meets, those main arteries — if you hold it, or you abuse it — it’s the same thing.”
Other issues extend beyond sites of particular significance to Native Americans.
“If they put that pipeline under the Missouri River, when — not if, when — that jacks up the river and all the tributaries and streams that come off of that would be impacted,” says Nadra. The consequences of that, she says, could be far-reaching. Already, she argues, other issues with water, including the pollution that rendered tap water undrinkable in Flint, Michigan, are related. And if pipeline construction continues unchecked? “It’s the destruction of the earth as we know it,” she warns.
Pipeline advocates argue that pipelines are the safest, most cost-efficient, and least spill-prone method of oil transportation
. Dakota Access promises that their pipeline will be constantly monitored, and that various technologies will minimize the consequences of any malfunctions.
But others don’t believe that those measures will be enough. Those against pipelines point to a number of potential issues, including fatal pipeline accidents
and pollutive oil spills
Brad Walker, the Rivers Director of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, a social justice organization, explains some of the environmental repercussions. The problems are threefold: first, construction along rivers damages a “fragile and limited habitat”; second, the pipeline has potential leaks; and third, those leaks are hard to fix if they occur underneath a river.
“The worst place you want to have an oil leak in a pipeline is underwater. Especially if it’s a water body that’s providing drinking water for people,” he says — like the Missouri River. Although Walker wasn’t sure where exactly the pipeline crossed the river, he says that the immediate impact on St. Louisans’ drinking water would likely be limited if the crossings were closer to North Dakota (which they are). That isn’t to say that the environmental harm from a spill couldn’t affect the health of the river, though.
But to Walker’s mind, the consequences are more complicated than just a potential oil leak.
“I think the big issue for St. Louisans — and everybody — is just the mere fact that we just keep trying to pump this oil out of the ground,” Walker says. “And it’s an investment that shouldn’t even be made,” he argues, because of its environmental effects.