Mark Trahant / TrahantReports
My Facebook feed is rolling with new feeds from those headed to North Dakota to join those protecting the drinking water for the people of Standing Rock and Cheyenne River. Other folks are fundraising using a variety of social media tools. And, still other people are gathering food and supplies for the many people camped near the river site. Plus dozens of tribes, organizations, and individuals are sending letters of support.
That combined is the essence of political organizing.
There is a problem, seemingly intractable, because the Dakota Access Project has opted for a route crossing the Missouri River in a location that threatens the drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (and eventually the Cheyenne River Tribe). So the tribes and supporters are organizing on multiple fronts. Litigation, set to begin next week, will challenge the role (or lack thereof) by federal regulators that have a trust responsibility to protect the tribes’ interests. And in the court of public opinion, hundreds of people are bringing the dispute into the new living room of America (that’s Facebook) where the story is often trending for all to see. (This shows how social media really is the new media for most people … but that’s another post.)
The magnitude of the organization is impressive. All it takes is a phone call, a Facebook post, or a picture on Instagram and there is somebody ready to act. Even letters of support are identical to “endorsements” of candidates or ballot measures. This is pure political organizing, 101. It’s the exact sort of passion that wins elections. What’s interesting about this debate, this moment in time, is that so many #NativeVote16 candidates are on the ballot statewide in North Dakota and South Dakota. The same organizational tools that bring food must also be configured to win an election. This election.
Imagine Chase Iron Eyes in Congress who is selling t-shirts to fund his campaign instead of Kevin Cramer who has more than a million dollars in contributions, some $652,000 from political action committees and corporations.
Or specifically on this issue: Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun, Standing Rock Sioux, is running for North Dakota’s Public Service Commission and Henry Red Cloud, Oglala Lakota, is a candidate for South Dakota’s Public Utilities Commission. These are the state regulatory bodies that determine approval process for pipeline companies. One vote in each state might not be enough to change the outcome, but one voice on each of those commissions could raise tribal concerns every single time the issue comes up.
The statements from the current North Dakota Public Service Commission make that very point. Commissioner Brian Kalk told The Bismarck Tribune: “These groups didn’t come to our hearings.”
But over a 13-month hearing schedule, the commission could have been the one to get out and talk to the people. That would have happened with Hunte-Beaubrun and Red Cloud on the two bodies. They would have made certain to include community voices.
The chairman of North Dakota’s body, Julie Fedorchak, said the permitting process is over because the company’s plans have already been approved.
Then again never say never. The strategy for the Dakota Access Pipeline has been all about getting a quick approval process. The original plan calls for completing construction this year. But if the protests and litigation slow that down, that might cause the company to rethink its route. Especially if they are looking at delays measured in years not months. I am not a lawyer but it sure looks to me like there is a lot of evidence that the Army Corps of Engineers failed the consultation protocol — a point that other federal agencies are making. And when local newspapers report that the route was shifted south to protect an urban water source, well, that no longer passes the smell test to say that same pipeline is safe for tribal communities. As the Bismarck Tribune put it: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers evaluated the Bismarck route and concluded it was not a viable option for many reasons. One reason mentioned in the agency’s environmental assessment is the proximity to wellhead source water protection areas that are avoided to protect municipal water supply wells.”
And when there is an oil spill a river cleanup is difficult, if not impossible. (An irony: Some of the best data about the potential for oil spills comes for the Pacific Northwest, a region that is impacted by the alternative to pipelines, rail transportation of oil.)
Last year a nearly 40,000 gallon pipeline leak on the Yellowstone River resulted in toxic drinking water for the communities near Glendive, Montana.
What makes this spill worth considering is two-fold: First, the volume of oil was only a fraction of what the Dakota Access Pipeline will carry; Second, a harsh winter made it impossible for the pipeline company to stop the leak. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Paul Peronard told The National Geographic: “None of us anticipated the drinking water problem.”
This time the problem is anticipated. And, like Montana, it’s certain that icy conditions will make any real time reaction to an emergency spill nearly impossible.
Back to politics: How many votes are needed to elect Hunte-Beaubrun? She would need to find 70,000 more votes than the last Democrat who ran for that office. And Red Cloud would need about 100,000 more votes.
Tall orders? Sure. But it’s no different than organizing food, transportation, and lodging for hundreds of last-minute guests. Or protectors, if you prefer.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
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