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Dakota Access Pipeline Is Back On, Skipping Environmental Review

The Army Corps of Engineers will allow the Dakota Access pipeline to be finished without a standard environmental impact statement.

Update, Feb. 7: A spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency sent Motherboard the following statement: "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have an approval or permitting role in the project. However, under EPA's National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) authority we provided comments in January and March of 2016 to the Army Corps of Engineers regarding its draft environmental assessment for the Dakota Access Pipeline. EPA's comments are part of the public record on this matter."

Without saying more on the matter, the spokesperson directed us to the agency's comments on the Army Corps of Engineer's first environmental impact statement. Last year, the EPA advised the Corps to find an alternate route for the pipeline "that would have reduced potential to water resources, especially drinking water supplies." They also urged the Corps to be "more thorough" with its investigation of environmental threats posed by the Dakota Access pipeline.

The agency spokesperson also noted the Corps chose not to hold a public comment period before posting its final review, as the EPA encouraged it to do.

Today, after months of protests, the remaining portion of the Dakota Access pipeline was greenlit by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps approved an easement, or building permit, to finish the 1,170-mile-long pipeline, which will tunnel under Lake Oahe in North Dakota, according to a court filing.

The crude oil conduit has been opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for more than a year now. Fearing that the pipeline would contaminate their drinking supply and damage sacred cultural sites, indigenous water protectors have attempted to halt the project, which is owned by Energy Transfer Partners.

Last month, the fate of the Dakota Access pipeline was ambiguous when President Trump issued his federal hiring freeze. As we reported, the Army Corps of Engineers was not exempted from the mandate as a defense agency. This meant that staffing issues could have caused it to delay the project.

At the time, it was unclear whether the Corps would proceed with its study of the pipeline's environmental impacts—the agency's second investigation into the pipeline's potential detriments. After the Obama administration said it would not allow the Dakota Access pipeline to be permitted, the Corps agreed to conduct another study and offer the chance for public input.

However, in an executive order last month, Trump urged the Secretary of the Army to consider "whether to withdraw the Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement" for the project. The subtext of this command was clear: fast-track the pipeline at any cost.

In this case, the cost could very well be human health and environmental integrity.

I asked the Army Corps of Engineers to confirm that it had, indeed, bypassed the second environmental impact statement. A spokesperson for the agency sent the following response:

The Department of the Army announced today that it has completed a presidential-directed review of the remaining easement request for the Dakota Access pipeline, and has notified Congress that it intends to grant an easement for a right-of-way across government land at Lake Oahe Dam and Reservoir, North Dakota.

Mr. Robert Speer, Acting Secretary of the Army, announced the decision.

Speer said the decision was made based on a sufficient amount of information already available which supported approval to grant the easement request and as a result, made the choice to terminate the notice of intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.

"Today's announcement will allow for the final step, which is granting of the easement," Speer explained. "Once that it done, we will have completed all the tasks in the Presidential Memorandum of January 24, 2017."

This action will serve [to] facilitate completion of the last mile and a half of the 1,172 mile pipeline, connecting the Bakken and Three Forks oil production areas in North Dakota to an existing crude oil terminal near Pakota, Illinois. The current proposed pipeline route would cross Lake Oahe, an Army Corps of Engineers project on the Missouri River.

I've also reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency, which would have reviewed the pipeline's impact statement, but have not received a response.