Montana tribal members, fearing water contamination, relieved as Keystone XL pipeline blocked
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Montana tribal members, fearing water contamination, relieved as Keystone XL pipeline blocked

Montana tribal members, fearing water contamination, relieved as Keystone XL pipeline blocked

GREAT FALLS, Mont. – When Cheyenne Foote heard that President Joe Biden blocked the Keystone XL pipeline permit on his first day in office, she cried.

Foote, 68, is an elder of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, and she feared the pipeline, which passes through a portion of Montana near the Fort Peck Reservation, would contaminate the tribes’ water supply.

“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, my prayers have been answered,” Foote said as she wept. “I am so happy. I am just so happy.”

Foote grew up in Fort Kipp, Montana. She remembers racing to the river in the summer to fill cups of water and watching her uncle in the winter fill buckets with snow that would melt and later be used for the garden.

Now, Foote holds water ceremonies and said she “cherishes every drop I see.”

“Water is life,” she said. “You can’t live without water. The Creator gave it to us, and it’s our job to take care of it.”

The 1,200-mile, $8 billion Keystone XL, would deliver heavy crude from western Canada through a portion of Montana and to Gulf Coast refineries.

In the path of the pipeline: Montanans view benefits, risks differently

Biden’s executive order reverses former President Donald Trump’s revival of the pipeline. Trump in 2017 reduced regulations that would otherwise slow building projects. Former President Barack Obama rejected the pipeline in 2015 saying it would “undercut” American leadership in the fight against global climate change.

Proponents of the pipeline argue it will bring jobs and economic development to eastern Montana.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines on Monday tweeted canceling the pipeline would be a “terrible mistake,” citing that it is projected to provide thousands of high-paying jobs, including hundreds in the state.

In response to Biden’s executive order Wednesday, Daines announced he and seven other senators would be introducing legislation to allow construction of the pipeline to continue.

But many tribal members say the pipeline threatens their communities.

The Missouri River runs west to east along the Fort Peck Reservation’s southern border. Because the pipeline does not cross the reservation, the tribes will not receive revenue from it.

But the reservation’s drinking water source is an intake on the Missouri River 57 miles downstream from where the pipeline would cross beneath the confluence of the Missouri and Milk rivers.

Many tribal members are concerned an oil spill from the pipeline would contaminate their irrigation and drinking water supply.

‘We’re all elated here’

“We look at these pipelines as an act of genocide against Native people. Pipelines cross our reservations, causing destruction to our environment and our people. We can’t live without water, and you cannot replace a life,” she said.

“This is about honoring our ancestors’ treaties and protecting our natural resources. As Indigenous people, we are the original caretakers of the environment, and we need to protect it.”

While Cheek said she is relieved Biden canceled the pipeline permit, she knows her work is not done.

“It’s been a long journey. This puts us at ease for four years, but we need to look for long-term solutions. We still have to move forward and ensure we gain future victories in the courts,” she said.

Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure said he was glad to hear the permit was blocked.

“We’re all elated here,” he said. “They didn’t ask for our perspective or allow us to have any input on the pipeline. They basically told us what they were going to do, and if we didn’t like it, we just had to live with it.”

Azure said he feared oil spills would contaminate the water supply, affecting not only tribal members but also residents in surrounding communities.

“Just because they say it’s safe, doesn’t mean it’s safe. They never gave us a plan if a spill did happen,” he said.

Azure said he feared “man camps,” or temporary housing for oil workers, would increase the spread of COVID-19, which could be especially devastating for tribal elders or members with diabetes or other health conditions.

Roosevelt County, which contains portions of the Fort Peck Reservation, had 1,428 total COVID-19 cases and 52 deaths from the virus, as of Wednesday. The county’s population is 60.5% Indigenous.

Lance Fourstar, chairman of the Assiniboine Council, said Biden’s announcement was “greatly accepted.”

“This feels like a huge win, but there are a number of other pipelines that threaten different areas of the country. All pipelines pose a threat to everyone in their path and downstream,” he said.

He echoed Azure’s concerns of pipeline workers spreading COVID-19.

U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale joined fellow Republican Daines in urging Biden to rethink his decision, saying the pipeline had already created 200 Montana jobs.

“America’s energy sector is important to our economy and critical to our national security by helping make us energy independent,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.

But Fourstar, chairman of the Assiniboine Council, said the pipeline’s risks far outweigh its benefits.

“At the end of the day, what this comes down to is there are a handful of workers and landowners who would benefit – that’s just the name of the game,” he said.

“A select few would benefit financially, but these jobs are temporary … we need to protect our water and our people.”