BISMARCK, N.D. — A federal judge is allowing four Native American tribes in the Dakotas to challenge the recent conclusion of federal officials that a Dakota Access oil pipeline spill wouldn't unfairly affect them, further prolonging a court case that has lingered for more than two years.
The Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Yankton and Oglala Sioux sued in July 2016 and are still fighting even though the $3.8 billion pipeline began moving North Dakota oil to Illinois in 2017. They fear environmental harm should the pipeline spill into the Missouri River, which they rely on for drinking water, fishing and religion.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in June 2017 ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to do more study on the pipeline's impacts on tribes. The agency last fall completed more than a year of additional work that it said backed up its earlier determination that the pipeline does not pose a higher risk of adverse impacts to minorities.
The tribes contend the Corps has simply rubber-stamped earlier conclusions that were welcomed by President Donald Trump after he took office. The tribes maintain the Corps either didn't allow them adequate input or didn't give enough weight to the information they provided. The Corps has said the tribes have been difficult to work with.
Tribes late last year asked to challenge the Corps' 140-page report on its additional work. Boasberg, in a ruling dated Thursday, said he will allow it but that the Corps and Texas-based pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners can oppose the introduction of any new tribal claims not specifically related to the additional study.
The Corps and ETP had said in late December that they would not try to block tribal challenges as long as the judge made that stipulation.
Boasberg has set a Jan. 31 deadline for the Corps to give the tribes access to all of the documents it used in making its decision.
The four tribes want a full environmental study that includes consideration of route alternatives. Standing Rock attorney Jan Hasselman has estimated the legal dispute will linger into at least the summer.