North Dakota pipeline protest about underground leak that will 'ultimately happen'

People who live near the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline say they worry it will eventually leak and the underground oil would go undetected, threatening the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's access to clean water from a nearby reservoir of the Missouri River.

Project mostly complete, except for segment planned to run under Lake Oahe

Standing Rock and Sioux Nation

5 years ago
The outcome of the Dakota Access pipeline protests will affect the Sioux Nation the most 2:16

When Ron His Horse Is Thunder gazes out from the porch of his log cabin ranch house on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in southern North Dakota, he guesses he can see about 40 kilometres away in the horizon.

The former tribal chairman sees approximately 100 Black Angus cattle and rolling hills blanketed in snow. He can spot the water tower in nearby Fort Yates.

But his sight line also looks right out on a reservoir of the Missouri River, a body of water he sees as threatened by the potential completion of the contentious Dakota Access Pipeline.

Phyllis Young says she has been fighting on the front lines of activism her entire life. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"Someday that pipeline will leak," he said. "They all leak and someday that pipeline will leak too."

He's not alone with that assessment.

Other tribal members here say they, too, fear a potential leak that could impact local drinking water.

His Horse Is Thunder has lived most of his life on the reservation. He says he fears a small pipeline leak could go undetected and he would ultimately like to see it re-routed.

There are many factors at play, he explains.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe say the fate of this reservoir of the Missouri River is at stake. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Perhaps lower oil prices could take a toll. Perhaps oil contracts could be impacted the longer the protest camps endure.

"It is still a small place compared to the land we used to have," said His Horse Is Thunder. "And of all the places in the world, this is the one place where our language is still alive, our culture is still alive."

"That's why we fight this so darn bad," he said.

A water tower in Fort Yates, N.D., on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation serves as a reminder about some tribe members' concerns. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

His Horse Is Thunder said he still goes to visit the camps that have grown nearby in opposition to the pipeline about three times a week.

And the main Oceti Sakowin camp is set to swell this weekend, with potentially thousands of U.S. veterans pouring into the area.

On Friday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch called for calm after speaking with both local law enforcement and the current tribal chairman.

"We recognize the strong feelings that exist about the Dakota Access Pipeline — feelings that in many instances arise from the complicated and painful history between the federal government and American Indians," she said.

The local sheriff's department continues to call for federal help in dealing with the issue.

Outside a community centre in Fort Yates, activist and former tribal councilwoman Phyllis Young says this community has long struggled with land and water issues before this specific pipeline debate.

She, too, lacks confidence in the pipeline's integrity.

"That's what is going to ultimately happen." she said. "The leak. We know that."

"We're at a threshold in time where Mother Earth is tilting and we can never put her back," said Young.

Tribe member Emmett White Temple says he is also opposed to the pipeline. but sees at least one positive with people in his community uniting in opposition to it.

"I think it gives the younger people a sense of being," he said.

But when it comes to the pipeline itself, His Horse Is Thunder says he believes there could be a more sinister motive at play.

"If it leaks, who does it affect? Indians. And we're expendable," he said.

"It goes to the idea that yes, this is environmental racism."​

With files from CBC's Karen Pauls and Reuters