BISMARCK - An early proposal for the Dakota Access Pipeline called for the project to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, but one reason that route was rejected was its potential threat to Bismarck's water supply, documents show.
Now a growing number of protesters are objecting to the oil pipeline's Missouri River crossing a half-mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which they argue could threaten the water supply for the tribe and other communities downstream.
Early in the planning process, Dakota Access considered but eliminated an alternative that would have crossed the Missouri River about 10 miles north of Bismarck instead of the route currently under construction.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers evaluated the Bismarck route and concluded it was not a viable option for many reasons. One reason mentioned in the agency's environmental assessment is the proximity to wellhead source water protection areas that are avoided to protect municipal water supply wells.
In addition, the Bismarck route would have been 11 miles longer with more road crossings and waterbody and wetland crossings. It also would have been difficult to stay 500 or more feet away from homes, as required by the North Dakota Public Service Commission, the Corps of Engineers states.
The Bismarck route also would have crossed an area considered by federal pipeline regulators as a "high consequence area," which is an area determined to have the most significant adverse consequences in the event of a pipeline spill.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argues that consequences would be severe if the 30-inch pipeline carrying 450,000 barrels of oil per day were to leak near the reservation's water intake valves. The tribe is suing the Corps of Engineers over its approval of the water crossing. A hearing is scheduled for next week in Washington, D.C.
"We are taking all necessary legal steps to curtail construction on the pipeline until our grievances are heard and resolved in court," Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II said Thursday.
State regulators did not evaluate the Bismarck route because Dakota Access had selected the current Missouri River crossing when it submitted its application in December 2014, said Public Service Commission Chairwoman Julie Fedorchak.
A map included in the Dakota Access application has a May 2014 date on the Bismarck route. The proposed route was changed in September 2014 to cross the Missouri River near the Standing Rock reservation, according to dates on the PSC documents.
Dakota Access said in a statement that the company conducts extensive surveys of proposed pipeline routes to mitigate the pipeline's impact on the area and determine the safest route.
The corps, which issued a permit for the water crossing, said the pipeline will be installed 92 feet below the riverbed with horizontal directional drilling methods to minimize impacts. The Corps also noted safeguards that will be in place, including remote monitoring of the pipeline and emergency response plans.
"Given the engineering design, proposed installation methodology, quality of material selected, operations measures and response plans the risk of an inadvertent release in, or reaching, Lake Oahe is extremely low," the corps concluded.
Public Service Commissioners defended their approval of the pipeline project this week, saying it was thoroughly reviewed and considered risks to water bodies. The state regulators also said they held a 13-month review process but didn't hear these concerns from the tribe.
Standing Rock leaders have, however, repeatedly objected to the way the corps evaluated the route and now are asking a federal judge to intervene.
Pipeline construction is halted in the protest area until the Aug. 24 hearing on the tribe's court case, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said Thursday.
Pipeline opponents also demonstrated late Thursday afternoon near the state Capitol, chanting, "We can't drink oil, keep it in the soil."
Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued his first public statement on the protest Thursday, emphasizing safety and stating that law enforcement and state agency directors would continue to closely monitor the situation.
"While we are concerned about some cases of unlawful activity, we are pleased that no one has been injured and it is our top priority to keep it that way," Dalrymple said.