Why these Native American leaders are demanding to be heard after the Keystone Pipeline spill

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In April, the Keystone Pipeline was shut down after an oil leak was discovered in South Dakota. The pipeline transports crude oil from the fields of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the U.S., and runs through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and farther south.


Under flat grazing land and rolling hills, the Keystone Pipeline has moved hundreds of thousands of barrels of tar sands oil (a thick combination of sand, bitumen, clay and heavy oil) per day since opening in 2010. This isn't the first time the pipeline has leaked: there have been at least fourteen other incidents including one particularly large 24,000-gallon spill.

A spokesperson for TransCanada, the company that owns the line (and has aspirations to expand its reach with the Keystone XL project), told Fusion that an investigation is underway and confirmed that more than 16,000 gallons of oil was spilled 10 to 12 feet underground, contaminating soil in the area. TransCanada said no local water supplies were affected.

But leaders of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, the Native American community closest to the spill, told Fusion that TransCanada and government agencies haven't given definitive answers as to what happened. The tribe has been left to guess whether the thousands of gallons of spilled oil will affect them and their land. And they haven't been told how the clean-up effort is progressing.

"We don't have the big bucks like the oil companies or the political influence. They came to our territory without our consent–with our opposition," said Russell Eagle Bear, historic preservation officer for the Rosebud Sioux tribe. "And at that time we stressed, it’s gonna leak."

The pipeline runs near the eastern border of the tribe's reservation and directly through land they said is theirs under original treaty agreements with the federal government. The tribe said they feel powerless. They've opposed the pipeline's existence since it was first proposed in 2008, and unsuccessfully went to court to try to stop its construction. The tribe said they found out about the spill in the first place from local media reports.

"They’re not bound to consult with us but clearly we want to know because its within our territory," said Eagle Bear. "We’re the closest reservation and we should be at the table with them. These federal agencies should be calling us to give us updates on it. But they’re off in their own world, too."


The tribe is still concerned about whether the water is safe. And Eagle Bear said that while the company is removing contaminated soil, there's no oversight from native leaders to make sure there aren't artifacts or burial grounds on the land that's being moved.

"They’re taking out tons of soil and they’re not required to tell us or require any of our monitors to be there to ensure that there’s no grave there, that there are no cultural items," said Paula Antoine, Director of the Sicangu Oyate Land Office.


TransCanada told Fusion they had been in touch with Native American leaders through a tribal liaison before the media and general public were told about the spill. But the Rosebud Sioux leaders said they'd never been contacted by a liaison, and that they had no idea who that person could be. The company said they could not provide information about who the liaison is or which native leaders they say they contacted.

"I’m certainly not going to discount how they feel, their feelings should be respected and we do respect that," said Mark Cooper, a spokesperson for TransCanada. "No incident is acceptable to us and every incident is preventable, and we’re very disappointed that this incident occurred."


The state agency that's taking the most active role in the clean up, South Dakota's Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said it doesn't proactively reach out to anyone who isn't "directly impacted" when an incident occurs, but provides information if asked.

The federal agency tasked with monitoring the pipeline, the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, did not respond to the tribal leaders' concerns when Fusion contacted them. "PHMSA is monitoring the repair and restart process," they said in a statement, "and is investigating the cause of the leak, any factors that contributed to the severity of the leak, and the operator’s adherence to Federal pipeline safety standards."


For Rosebud Sioux leaders, it's just another instance of being left out of the loop when it comes to oil activity on their land. "Our main concern is the law of the earth, the water. We’re trying to protect our resources, the earth and the water. That’s our charge," said Eagle Bear. "And again dealing with all these obstacles that are put in front of us."

As oil production in the U.S. has increased in recent years, spills have also become more frequent: an Associated Press report from last year found that "significant incidents" on oil and petroleum pipelines has increased 60% since 2009.


As Native American communities protest another proposed pipeline in North and South Dakota, the Dakota Access Pipeline, the lack of information around this latest spill just heightens the tribes' concerns. Work on that pipeline is likely to begin in June.

TransCanada expects the Keystone Pipeline to be fully re-opened and functional again this week. Meanwhile, TransCanada's proposed expansion of the pipeline, the Keystone XL, is on hold after President Obama said he's rejecting the proposal–but that's an order the company is challenging in court, saying it violates America's obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement.


Russell Eagle Bear said that as far as he's concerned, pipelines running through native land or near reservations are violations of native land rights.

"What it comes down to is our treaties. If you look at our constitution the treaty is defined as the supreme law of the land," he said. "None of these federal agencies recognize that. Seriously, they never really look at those documents. We’re left out of the loop."