BISMARCK — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fielded comments on the scope of a new environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline during a three-hour Facebook livestream Thursday night, Oct. 15.
In an unorthodox hearing conducted entirely over a Facebook video feed, representatives from the Army Corps responded to the mostly critical line of questioning submitted by email or through the comment feed alongside the social media stream. While the content of public commentary on the pipeline was overwhelmingly negative, many DAPL opponents raised secondary concerns about the effectiveness of the meeting's digital format.
"It's being hosted over Facebook. How insane is that?" Kim Ironroad, a spokesperson for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said ahead of Thursday night's hearing. Ironroad said she feared many people with limited access to internet or without Facebook accounts would be cut out of the conversation, either unable to submit their thoughts or left uninformed of the meeting entirely.
"While there are obviously challenges to figuring out how to do this in a pandemic, a one-way Facebook event where we're limited to angry face emojis or something is probably not a legitimate way to gauge public sentiment," said Jan Hasselman, a lawyer for EarthJustice who represents the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against Dakota Access.
"It would be preferable to do this in person ... but in the environment we're currently in we wanted to, at a minimum, have this dialogue," said Larry Janis, chief of the Recreation and Natural Resources Branch at the Army Corps, stressing that the meeting was not simply intended to field comments, but to take them into consideration for the upcoming review. "We hope that through this mechanism we can get the crucial input that's needed as part of this (environmental impact statement) process."
Thursday night's event was the first of two scoping hearings designed for the Army Corps to compile public input on their upcoming, extensive environmental review of DAPL and its operations at the point of its Lake Oahe crossing, just off the Standing Rock Reservation. In a more typical year, an open forum public hearing would have been held in North Dakota, but the pandemic and timeline for the Army Corps' review prompted them to hold the meeting over a social media stream.
The new environmental impact statement, or EIS, is the result of a tumultuous legal battle that played out in federal courts this summer. Initially, DAPL was ordered to shut down completely by Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In the shocking July ruling, Boasberg vacated the pipeline's easement at Lake Oahe and ruled it should stop carrying oil until the completion of the new EIS, estimated to take up to 13 months.
While a federal appeals court stayed the pipeline's shutdown late in the summer, the easement remains vacated and will be the subject of the Army Corps' new EIS.
At the beginning of Thursday's hearing, Army Corps representatives outlined four potential outcomes for the EIS. In the first and most dramatic, the Army Corps could opt not to restore DAPL's easement, calling for the pipeline's complete removal and the restoration of the land to its pre-pipeline state. The Army Corps could also decline to restore the easement and shut off the pipeline while allowing it to remain in the ground. Third and fourth alternatives would see the restoration of the pipeline's easement and DAPL's continued operation, either under the same conditions or with new additions to the vacated easement.
The Army Corps representatives said the federal agency's review will account for a wide array of environmental issues, including air quality, climate change, cultural resources, environmental justice and public health.
Many of the questions and comments submitted Thursday evening expressed concern about the Army Corps' environmental stewardship and its accounting for tribal priorities. Often, commenters on the Facebook feed urged other attendees to voice support for the first EIS alternative: The shutdown and removal of the pipeline.
While the general public weighed in on Thursday night, Standing Rock and other tribes had a separate opportunity to meet directly with the Army Corps Tuesday, Oct. 13.
Ironroad said a similar digital format during Tuesday's hearing proved unsatisfactory, allowing for Standing Rock representatives to air their concerns without serious engagement on the part of the Army Corps.
"We don't consider this a government-to-government consultation whatsoever," Ironroad said.
The stakes of Thursday's hearing were elevated by news announced the day before that DAPL had cleared its final regulatory hurdle to nearly double its capacity, from 570,000 to 1.1. million barrels per day, a development that would be major boon to North Dakota oil producers, even as environmental groups argue that it raises the consequences of leaks or spills.
"The engagement of the public will reveal that there remains a lot of passion around this issue," Hasselman said. "The fact that the pipeline's been there for a couple of years has not diminished people's fury that this process was so messed up."
Not discussed in Thursday night's hearing was the parallel programming: simultaneous presidential campaign town halls featuring Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The federal court process for the pipeline is slated to stretch beyond next month's presidential election, and while legal observers have argued that an Army Corps under the Trump presidency is unlikely to take punitive action against DAPL, environmental activists expressed hope that a Biden administration could take more dramatic action against the operations of the pipeline.
Representatives from the Army Corps said they could not address all of the comments and questions that came in on Thursday, but they stressed that all input would be recorded and taken into account.
The Army Corps will hold a second public scoping meeting on Friday night from 6 to 9 p.m. with the public comment period closing on Oct. 26.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit is scheduled to hear arguments over the continued operation of the pipeline on Nov. 4, the day after the presidential election.
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.