The Standing Rock saga took another twist on Sunday, as the federal government issued a ruling against the controversial pipeline project.
The US Army Corps of Engineers issued a statement saying they would not be granting permission for the Dakota Access pipeline to burrow beneath Lake Oahe in North Dakota, the final section of a four-state, $3.8 billion project.
Protesters who have been camped out at the site for months celebrated their victory – but tempering their exuberance are concerns that the incoming Trump administration could seek to reverse the decision.
"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," said Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army's Assistant Secretary for Civil Works. "The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing."
The 1,172-mile pipeline is complete except for the one-mile section that the owners, Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP (ETP), have been seeking to route beneath the Lake Oahe reservoir on the Missouri River. Native Americans and environmentalists have been protesting that final installment on the grounds that it would harm sacred lands and could contaminate water sources.
The contingent of protesters has grown in recent days as hundreds of US veterans have joined the cause. As the news of the Army’s decision filtered through on Sunday, cheers rippled through the encampment, punctuated by chants of “mni wichoni,” or “water is life” in Lakota Sioux.
But celebrations held a hint of caution, as Miles Allard of the Standing Rock Sioux explained to the Associated Press: "We don't know what Trump is going to do." As yet, the president-elect has made no comment on the announcement.
"The whole world is watching," Mr. Allard added. "I'm telling all our people to stand up and not to leave until this is over."
According to some, the situation would be “over” once ETP removed their drilling equipment from the edge of the Missouri River, where it sits awaiting approval. In November, the company sought permission from a federal court to disregard the Army Corps of Engineers and finish the work themselves; no ruling has yet been given.
For its part, ETP issued a statement calling the Army’s announcement “the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions,” reaffirming its commitment to the project “without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe.”
The federal government’s decision came just a day before its deadline for protesters to leave the site, but it seems unlikely many will depart, bearing in mind their concerns that the decision could be reversed. Authorities have said they do not intend to forcibly remove anyone.
“The Department of Justice will continue to monitor the situation in North Dakota in the days ahead,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a statement. “The safety of everyone in the area – law enforcement officers, residents and protesters alike – continues to be our foremost concern.”
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.