Billings Gazette: Fort Peck tribes raise concerns about Keystone XL pipeline

By Tom Lutey

Billings Gazette, June 21, 2018

Fort Peck tribes raise concerns about Keystone XL pipeline threatening reservation’s water

The Keystone XL pipeline is facing opposition from American Indians along its Montana-to-Oklahoma route, beginning with the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.

Proposed by TransCanada Corporation, the pipeline for Alberta tar sands oil skirts the Fort Peck Reservation, but crosses under the Missouri River not far from the Fort Peck/Dry Prairie Regional Water System. That’s too close for Fort Peck’s Tribal Council, which in May told Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that its treaty right to water needs to be protected.

“They’re telling us it’s pretty much foolproof and all that, but I look at it this way,” Chairman Floyd Azure said. “They said the Titanic was unsinkable. Everyone knows what happened to the Titanic.

“We feel that by treaty right the federal government should have been protecting us at that time before this thing was signed, sealed and delivered,” Azure told Zinke.

The regional water system is a massive, federally funded project to provide potable water to Hi-Line residents both on and off the reservation. When the final pipe is connected, the total conduit length will measure 3,200 miles. Its cost after 20 years approaches $350 million.

That investment needs to be protected, say the directors of the Dry Prairie portion of the project, which serves the non-reservation users. The intake for the project is on the Fort Peck portion of the system, which is managed by the tribes, but Dry Prairie has written a letter stating its support for the Assiniboine and Sioux.

“Dry Prairie supports the Assiniboine and Sioux Rural Water Supply System efforts to re-route or ensure that necessary mitigation efforts take place by Keystone to ensure the safety of the pipeline and to allow for the continued delivery of safe drinking water,” the directors wrote.

TransCanada said Wednesday it is working with the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux and other tribes along the Keystone route.

“We have been working and engaging in discussions with many Native American tribes since the very beginning of this project, back in 2008,” said Matthew John, a TransCanada spokesman. “We will continue to work with them as we move forward. Specifically, we have been working to establish a dialogue with the leadership on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, so that we can develop a better understanding of their issues.”

Chairman Azure was not in the office Wednesday and didn’t respond to an interview request. Dry Prairie Manager Joni Sherman said TransCanda has asked about where the regional water project’s pipes are located so they can be avoided by Keystone.

In South Dakota last week the state Supreme Court rejected an appeal from American Indians and environmentalists who challenged state approval of the pipeline crossing the state. The Cheyenne River Sioux and Yankton Sioux tribes were plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In Nebraska, a couple deeded 1.6 acres to the Ponca Tribe thinking American Indians might have better leverage in trying to stop Keystone.

Montana landowners and environmentalists also have a lawsuit, which challenges President Donald Trump’s approval of a presidential permit for Keystone.

The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes say the Missouri River is one of their few remaining sources for drinking water. Their underground wells have been contaminated by historic oil development in the area. The Poplar River, which flows onto the reservation from Canada, is contaminated upstream by a coal-fired power plant.

But the Missouri River is guaranteed by treaty to serve the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, Azure told the secretary.

“We have a treaty right to the northern half of the Missouri waterbed and a million acre feet of water with our water compact,” Azure said.

The objections are similar to those made by the Standing Rock Sioux in 2016 against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That $3.8 billion pipeline, at 1,200 miles long, crossed the tribe’s Missouri River water supply and raised concerns about cultural sites in the area that weren’t on the reservation. From August 2016 to February 2017, environmentalists from around the country rallied at Standing Rock. Several Native American tribes and protesters joined the Standing Rock Sioux in solidarity.