Format of public comment meetings for Dakota Access oil pipeline upsets opponents

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Opponents of the Dakota Access oil pipeline are taking issue with the format of private oral testimony in meetings for public comment on a draft environmental review of the controversial pipeline.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of two public comment meetings in Bismarck, North Dakota, the first held Wednesday, the second set for Thursday. People wishing to give testimony may do so orally in a curtained area with a stenographer, or do so in writing at tables.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has long opposed the pipeline due to the risk of an oil spill contaminating the tribe's drinking water supply. The four-state pipeline crosses under the Missouri River just upstream of the tribe's reservation.

The long-awaited draft environmental review, released in September, outlines five options for the pipeline's fate. Those include denying the easement for the controversial crossing and removing or abandoning a 7,500-foot (2,286-meter) segment, or granting the easement with no changes or with additional safety measures. A fifth option is to reroute the pipeline north of Bismarck, which would require new state, local and federal permits.

Many opponents of the pipeline had hoped Wednesday's meeting would have allowed them to publicly question the Corps and pipeline developer Energy Transfer, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

Joe Lafferty, a Native American activist who opposes the pipeline, poured oil and water into a cup and challenged Corps officials to take a drink.

“If it means so much to you, I want you, DAPL, Army Corps of Engineers, drink this water with oil in it and then maybe, as a Lakota I’ll consider your request," Lafferty said. His demonstration did not count as official testimony.

Republican state Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, who sits on a state panel that regulates oil and gas, said the meeting was a fair process.

“I heard a comment saying, ‘This is no democratic way’ -- why, I think it very much is because you get a chance to say your piece,” he said.

About 150 to 200 people attended Wednesday's meeting, Corps spokesperson Steve Wolf told The Associated Press. About 80 people gave oral testimony, taken down by two stenographers, which Wolf said enabled the Corps to receive more comments. The Corps received about 50 written comments.

“I understand the fact that some people want to be performative and try to create some kind of a fanfare in front of an audience of people, but that's not the spirit and intent of the law or the meeting,” Wolf told the AP. The Corps is “absolutely on the right side of the law in how we're doing this," he said.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairwoman Janet Alkire last month called for the draft review to be invalidated, with a new one begun and the pipeline shut down.

A virtual meeting with only tribes is set for Nov. 8. The public comment meetings should be held on the reservation, said Peter Capossela, one of Standing Rock's attorneys. The Bismarck meetings are more convenient for corporate executives and state officials than for tribal members who live as far as 120 miles (190 kilometers) away, he said.

“If the Army Corps is genuinely interested in hearing the views of tribal members and learning about the potential environmental impacts of an oil spill at the DAPL/Lake Oahe crossing, it would have held public hearings on the reservation that's going to be polluted by a spill,” Capossela told the AP.

Wolf said the Corps is “being as open and transparent as we can possibly be through all of this, and nobody is being excluded from anything by us.”

State government and oil industry leaders view the pipeline as crucial infrastructure and the safest method for transporting oil, rather than by rail. Officials such as North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and U.S. Sen. John Hoeven have said they prefer the pipeline to continue operating as it has.

The public comment period ends Dec. 13. A final decision whether to grant or deny the easement is expected in late 2024.