DAPL sign

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken its first steps toward completing a new court-ordered environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline, meeting with tribes earlier this week and holding an event Thursday evening to answer questions from the public.

Corps officials indicated Thursday that they intend to consider pipeline operator Energy Transfer’s recent plans to nearly double the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline. The agency has reached out to the company to gather more information and “will incorporate that into our analysis,” Corps Project Manager Heath Kruger said.

The company plans to increase the line’s capacity from 570,000 barrels per day to 1.1 million barrels per day by adding pump stations to boost horsepower. The expansion is one of a number of issues that came up in a meeting with tribes Tuesday, along with other matters such as the pipeline’s impact on tribal hunting and fishing rights, oil spill response plans and easement conditions, Kruger said.

“We’ll continue to incorporate feedback from the tribes throughout this,” he said.

Standing Rock Chairman Mike Faith did not immediately respond Thursday night to a request for comment on the meeting earlier in the week, but the tribe said in a Facebook post that it took part.

The tribe encouraged the public to watch the event the Corps held virtually Thursday via Facebook Live and “to voice your concern and disapproval” about the possibility that the agency could reissue an easement for the pipeline’s Missouri River crossing just upstream of the reservation. A federal judge revoked the easement earlier this year, and the environmental review process will guide the Corps’ decision on whether to grant the permit again.

While members of the public could not speak at Thursday’s meeting, numerous pipeline opponents flooded the comments on the Facebook stream with messages of support for Standing Rock and questions for Corps officials, who responded to some of them.

A representative from the Three Affiliated Tribes sent in an email during the meeting asking to be consulted in the environmental review process, and a Corps official indicated that a tribal liaison would be in touch.

The agency will continue the meeting with another session Friday evening as it seeks to identify the “scope” of the environmental review, which is known as an Environmental Impact Statement.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in March ordered the EIS four years into the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s lawsuit over the line, concluding that “too many questions remain unanswered” about the risk of an oil spill after previous, less thorough environmental studies. He then revoked the easement in July.

Corps officials said Thursday that they will consider a number of factors as they conduct the EIS, including the pipeline’s impact on climate change, cultural resources, environmental justice, fish and wildlife.

The agency also will evaluate various scenarios, including adding additional conditions to a new pipeline easement or reissuing the easement with the same conditions as before. The Corps also could choose to not grant an easement and require that the pipe be removed.

Kruger said the Corps is considering hiring a contractor to help conduct the EIS. The agency will next prepare a draft review document and then solicit public comments again.

The review process is expected to take at least 13 months and is playing out while litigation and regulatory action on the pipeline grow increasingly convoluted.

The Corps kicked off the environmental review even as it’s fighting it in court. Both the agency and Energy Transfer are asking a panel of federal appeals judges to conclude that an EIS is unnecessary. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 4.

Meanwhile, Standing Rock is again asking Boasberg to shut down the pipeline. The judge ordered the line emptied of oil during the EIS process, but the appellate court overruled that part of his order and said the line could continue operating.

The Corps is now weighing what action, if any, it should take with regard to the pipeline’s operations. Without an easement, the pipeline is now considered an “encroachment” upon federal property.

As those proceedings play out, the Corps is accepting formal comments on the scope of the EIS through Oct. 26. The agency seeks input regarding environmental, social and economic issues relevant to the easement and on reasonable alternatives it should consider. For more information, go to https://go.usa.gov/xG2Pt.

Another significant development with Dakota Access occurred this week when regulators in Illinois approved Energy Transfer’s pipeline expansion plans.

The company is building pump stations in North Dakota, South Dakota and Illinois to boost the line’s horsepower. Construction began on a pump station west of Linton in Emmons County last week, nearly eight months after the North Dakota Public Service Commission approved the expansion. Work also began recently at a site in South Dakota.

With approval in Illinois, Energy Transfer cleared the last hurdle before state regulators to proceed with the expansion.

Standing Rock and environmental groups in other states opposed the expansion, saying that pushing more oil through the pipeline would increase the risk of a spill. Energy Transfer said that wasn’t the case and offered assurances to regulators that its plans were safe.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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