The fight to save clean water on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation

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Native American leaders in Montana believe the Keystone oil pipeline puts them in grave danger but they are up against powerful business interests

Lance Four Star drives west at 70mph using his knees to work the steering wheel as he watches the Montana senator Jon Testers Indian Country Facebook town hall on his wifes smartphone, the video starting and stopping as the cellular signal goes in and out on the 40-mile drive from the middle of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation to its border.

There arent many jobs on this 2m acre reservation in Montanas north-east corner, and Four Star is brushing up on Testers policy positions before an interview for a job on the Democrats re-election campaign, which is in its last hundred days. As a US army veteran, Four Star supports Testers work reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs, but disagrees with Tester on one major issue:

Will you stop the pipelines from entering Montana? Four Star reads aloud from the comment section of the Facebook stream.

  • Lance Four Star, the chairman of the Fort Peck Assiniboine council, watches an Indian country town hall while driving through Wolf Point on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. All photos by Erika Peterman for MTFP

The phone loses signal again before Four Star can see if the question is answered, but the senators position is no mystery. Just like every other top politician in the state, Democrat and Republican, state and federal, Tester supports construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, which is slated to cross the Missouri river a quarter-mile upriver of Fort Pecks southwestern border when construction begins next year.

Were just outnumbered and out-moneyed, Four Star says, guiding his Ford F-150 along US Route 2 as it parallels the bulbous petroleum train cars regularly traversing the BNSF rail line. The tanker convoys arrive empty at the Bakken oil patch just to the east and the Alberta tar sands far to the north, and leave full for refineries and export terminals.

Four Star fears that if any of the trains rolling through the tribal seat of Poplar or the reservations largest town of Wolf Point ever derailed, it could blow up the entire town a point pipeline supporters also make. But to Four Star, the Keystone XL pipeline is no less threatening to his community than crude oil traveling through by train.

Four Star is the chairman of the Fort Peck Assiniboine Council, which is separate from and predates the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribal Executive Board that is recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the reservations elected governing body. Fort Peck is a two-tribe reservation, and the Sioux also have a non-governing council.

The Canadian pipeline company TransCanada plans for Keystone XL to cross beneath the riverbed of the Missouri river about a quarter-mile upstream of the confluence with the Milk river, the reservations south-western border. Two miles upriver of the proposed crossing site is the mile-long spillway of the Fort Peck dam. The spillway itself functions as a safety valve to rapidly release water from the fifth-largest reservoir in America when it gets dangerously high.

Seventy miles downriver, on the reservation, is the intake plant for the Assiniboine & Sioux Rural Water Supply System, a $300m congressionally mandated drinking water treatment and supply network built after oil drilling turned much of the tribes aquifer north of Poplar saline and carcinogenic. Two agricultural water intakes are farther upriver, between the intake and the proposed pipeline. The big concern for local pipeline opponents like Four Star is a doomsday scenario in which heavy snowpack and spring rains fill the reservoir to its capacity, which would mandate a huge release of water from the dam to prevent it from failing. That torrent of water flowing out of the spillway would scour the riverbed downstream, and that scouring could damage or rupture the pipeline, releasing diluted tar sands bitumen into the river.

  • Native American leaders in Montana believe the Keystone oil pipeline would threaten the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

In 2010, a pipeline owned by Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Inc spilled more than 1m gallons of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo river in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation of that incident found that diluted bitumen breaks down into its constituent chemicals, including benzene, a known carcinogen, when spilled into a river.

If a spill like that were to happen in the Missouri river, those toxic chemicals could be sucked into the Fort Peck water networks intake, which could wreck the system, require an emergency shutoff, or poison the tribes drinking water a second time.

In a 2013 letter to the state department reviewing the draft environmental impact statement for Keystone XL, the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance referenced the dangers exposed by the Kalamazoo diluted bitumen spill, particularly benzene, and recommended that the EIS reflect the additional risks present in diluted bitumen spills.

The fear that such a spill could result from a massive release of water from the reservoir isnt unfounded. Such a release happened in 2011 during record-high runoff and caused more than $200m in damage to the spillway.

TransCanada has repeatedly said the proposed 36in pipeline will be state of the art and will never break, but the company hasnt convinced the plaintiffs suing the US departments of State and Interior in Great Falls Missouri River courthouse more than 300 miles upstream.

  • Video by Colin Ruggiero

Four Star speaks of when the pipeline breaks, not if.

Unless you take [the pipeline] out, at some point its going to erode. It will leak, he says.

Its easy to think in a geological time scale in the traditional Assiniboine wintering grounds, where the floodplains meet the highland valleys where tyrannosauruses once roamed, now submerged beneath the reservoir.

This section of the Missouri river runs clear and clean, visibly teeming with waterfowl and fish, including, not so visibly, some of the last remaining pallid sturgeon, living fossils that survived the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs only to face the threat of extinction from the dams destroying their habitat.

The remote Montana portion of the Keystone XL pipeline hasnt attracted the attention aimed at the Nebraska section, or other proposed pipelines including Enbridges Line 3 in Minnesota, the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana, or the Trans Mountain pipeline in western Canada.

Data analysis by the Washington Post in February found that three towns on or adjacent to the reservation Glasgow, Scobey and Wold Point are the first, second, and third most remote small towns in America. Just to the south, Circle is the farthest town in the nation from a Starbucks.

Up here in north-east Montana, were the farthest from everything, and I like that, Four Star says.

The crossing

Leaving the reservation, Four Star weaves his truck between road crews widening the main thoroughfare of the no-stoplight town of Nashua from two lanes to four twice the width of the Hi-Lines US Route 2.

The road, Montana Highway 117, is patrolled by pilot cars guiding convoys around graders and excavators. A new bridge is being built over the railway to connect US 2 to Highway 117, which continues south toward the Missouri river.

A few miles south of Nashua, Four Star turns off Highway 117 into a network of farm roads, passing the New Deal boomtowns-turned-ghost-towns that once housed the workers who built the Fort Peck dam during the Great Depression. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw the earthen dam the largest ever built at the time, and second-largest today as a solution to unemployment as much as a tool for flood control and power generation.

  • Lance Four Star fears the pipeline, which will cross the Missouri river a quarter-mile from Fort Pecks border, will threaten the tribes, burial grounds near the reservation and other sacred archeological sites.

The Fort Peck dam isnt a sheer concrete cliff like stereotypical dams. Its essentially a 250ft-high pile of dirt about two miles long and half a mile wide. FDR said here 84 years ago that the style probably took more manpower and labor hours than other dam designs, which was the point, since one of the primary purposes for building it was to put people to work.

TransCanada has promised the pipeline will bring jobs for locals, but Four Star doesnt believe the company.

Standing on the riverbank where the Keystone XL pipeline is due to cross beneath the Missouri, Four Star examines photos of recently released TransCanada maps shared by a member of the tribal executive board.

This isnt the first oil pipeline crossing site Four Star has been to, or opposed. He traveled in 2016 to the Standing Rock demonstration against the Dakota Access pipeline as part of a veterans contingent.

That was the second time Four Star was gassed by the government, he says. The first time was in army chemical warfare training.

Four Star says he took an oath when he enlisted in the army to defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that Keystone XL fits the bill.

Keystone XL doesnt threaten just living members of the tribes, but also burial grounds to the west of the reservation, as well as teepee rings and other sacred archeological sites, he says.

For Four Star, its the equivalent of building a pipeline through the Vatican.

Were not in the way of the pipeline. The pipeline is in the way of us, he says.

Six miles up the Missouri from the Milk river confluence is Kirkland Ranch Estates, a planned housing development of 91 residential and three commercial plots and a golf course. All thats been built so far are roads. Four Star says its rumored the houses wont go in, and instead the land will be the site of a man camp to house the workers who will build Keystone XL.

Jed Kirkland, the propertys developer, says thats not true.

Kirkland says the camp will be located a little more than a mile north on 117, on the northern side of its intersection with Mdu Road, which he knows because he helped TransCanada install the water line to that property. Kirkland says he doesnt know whether the camp will be good or bad for the housing development.

  • Kirkland Ranch Estates, an unbuilt housing development in Nashua near the pipeline crossing, is rumored to be the site of a future camp for pipeline workers. Developer Jed Kirkland says the camp is going in a mile north.

Four Star says meth didnt get really bad on the reservation until 2008, when soaring oil prices spurred a fracking boom in the Bakken Formation on Fort Pecks eastern border that saw tens of thousands of workers, mostly single men, housed in hastily constructed trailer towns. Fueled by long hours, high wages and nothing but prairie in every direction, those camps became centers of drugs and sexual violence, which have affected Native women in disproportionately high numbers.

TransCanada says the workers coming in are of a different breed, Four Star says. Drug-tested, and with families.

He doesnt believe them.

They also say the tar sands float, he says, repeating a common joke among Keystone XL opponents.

Four Star is suspicious of any promises of safety from oil companies after the Kalamazoo pipeline spill.

While the oil traveling from the Bakken is a light, sweet crude easily pumped from wells and through pipelines, the tar sands-derived crude of northern Alberta that Keystone XL would carry is viscous.

Before tar sands crude can be pumped through a pipeline, it first has to be clawed out of cliff walls with bucket excavators, then heated to extract the heavy, viscous oil known as bitumen.

Bitumen is too thick to be pumped through a pipeline, so it has to be mixed with other hydrocarbons to thin it out, producing diluted bitumen.

TransCanada says that if Keystone XL ruptured, escaping diluted bitumen would simply float away on the Missouri, bypassing the underwater intakes of the tribes water system.

  • Opponents of the pipeline also fear the camps that will develop to house the workers. Other camps, fueled by long hours, high wages and prairie in every direction, have become centers for drugs and sexual violence.

The plaintiffs suing the feds over Keystone XLs environmental impact statement allege that the companys claim is based on an oil spill model tailored to conventional crude oil, not tar sands crude. In comments on a draft EIS in 2013, TransCanada briefly contradicts its public stance that diluted bitumen floats.

If oil does remain on the water surface for a sufficient time, without being cleaned up, there is the potential for some oil to sink, TransCanada wrote.

Unlike in laboratory settings, when diluted bitumen spilled in Kalamazoo, its components separated, and the bitumen sank to the riverbed.

Thats why Four Star is worried when TransCanada says the camps arent a threat to the reservation.

The activists

According to a confidential email from the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks chief of law enforcement, David Loewen to FWP wardens and leadership, Nashua wont be the only man camp.

Loewen says such camps are also expected to appear in the towns of Circle, 50 miles south of the Missouri, 50 miles up the Milk river in Hinsdale, and more than 100 miles to the south-east in Baker, where an oil on-ramp will be built for Bakken oil. TransCanada says the Hinsdale camp alone is expected to house 800 workers.

Although man camps bring a certain degree of law enforcement challenges, the primary enforcement focus is protest activity, Loewen said in the email.

The email was released to the Montana ACLU as part of a campaign of statewide public disclosure requests the organization hopes will map police surveillance of Native Americans and environmentalists ahead of an anticipated Standing Rock-style protest against the pipeline.

Angeline Cheek is a Fort Peck tribal member who went to Standing Rock in the fall of 2016, and an activist with Indian Peoples Action, a Montana-based indigenous rights group that has previously organized blockades against convoys hauling tar sands equipment through the state to Alberta.

  • Anti-pipeline activist Angeline Cheek says Keystone XL doesnt just threaten the tribes drinking water, but tribal members as well, due to the lawlessness man camps planned nearby would bring to the reservation.

Cheek says drugs and sexual violence have been a problem on the reservation for a long time, but that she doesnt remember things being nearly this bad growing up. She says a couple of her cousins are addicted to meth, which she says flows on to the reservation from the Bakken oil field man camps, alongside sexually transmitted diseases and human trafficking.

For more than a year, anti-pipeline activists have marched from one end of the reservation to the other to raise awareness of the threat Keystone XL poses to the water network from which most of the surrounding off-reservation communities also get their drinking water.

Last April, a 60-mile march was held on Montana Highway 13 from the Canadian border north of the reservation south to the Missouri river. The first community the marchers passed through is the predominantly white town of Scobey, which sits in the middle of a 25-mile strip of farm and ranch land between Canada and the Fort Peck Reservation.

Even with ACLU observers present, by all accounts the atmosphere was tense. Cheek says that just south of the Canadian border marchers encountered gun-holding farmers who followed the marchers to Scobey in their cars. Cheek says she and another marcher lagged behind in town, handing out flyers, and were surrounded by locals shouting threats.

Go Trump! Let the pipeline through! Lets scalp and kill these Indians! Cheek says they yelled. That really scared me.

She and the other marchers jumped into one of the marchs support vehicles and caught up with the other activists south of town. As the march continued, Cheek and Four Star say, they were shadowed and circled by truck-driving locals who heckled the marchers whenever they stopped for prayers at water crossings. Cheek says the hecklers followed the march nine miles on to the reservation before turning back. Cheek says she saw full gun racks on the trucks rear windows.

The state ACLUs legal director, Alex Rate, confirmed the aggressive comments, but could not confirm the presence of guns.

The reservation is a concentration camp, and now were going to be surrounded by man camps. Its like being surrounded by the KKK, Cheek says.

Cheek says the tribal government hasnt prepared for the violence that pipeline construction could bring to the reservation if the pipeline isnt stopped by the lawsuit in Great Falls.

The tribes

Although the Fort Peck executive board passed a resolution in 2015 opposing Keystone XL, the tribes are not party to the lawsuit opposing the pipeline. Instead, for the past year they have attempted to negotiate with TransCanada to reroute the pipeline.

Protesters have scared off TransCanada representatives from public meetings with the executive board, which has led to closed meetings, giving ammunition to activists who accuse the tribal government of collaborating with the pipeline company.

  • Floyd Azure said he plans to ask the Tribal Executive Board of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, which he chairs, to take legal action against the federal government over the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to public notices that TransCanada published in eastern Montana newspapers in 2008, two other routes were proposed downstream of Fort Pecks water intake. One would have crossed the reservation, with the other cutting east above the reservations northern border before turning south, avoiding BIA lands, as a 2009 TransCanada document stated. TransCanada finally chose the shortest route, the pipelines current path, which crosses the Missouri below the Fort Peck dam spillway and upriver of the water intake.

It is unlikely that TransCanada could easily change the route even if the company wanted to. When the Nebraska Public Service Commission (PSC) denied TransCanadas preferred pipeline route through the states western Sand Hills last December, plaintiffs latched on to the fact that the alternative route the Nebraska PSC approved hadnt been studied in the EIS approved by the feds.

On 30 July, the state department released a draft environmental assessment of the current Nebraska route that forecasts a negligible environmental impact.

On 15 August, Judge Brian Morris ruled that the draft assessment wasnt enough, and that the state department must file a supplement to the EIS that considers the new Nebraska portion of the route, which the 2014 EIS did not cover. Morris has yet to rule on the wider aspects of the case.

Referenced in the Nebraska draft assessment was an unattached TransCanada risk assessment of the pipelines Missouri river crossing site near Fort Peck that the company submitted to the US Army Corps of Engineers, the agency in charge of granting river-crossing permits.

While publication of the federal governments Nebraska assessment was announced in the Federal Register and posted to the state departments Keystone XL website, TransCanadas Missouri river risk assessment was published exclusively on the pipeline companys website sometime in July with no announcement.

Its a document the Fort Peck tribes have been searching for.

  • According to public notices that TransCanada published in eastern Montana newspapers in 2008, two other routes for the pipeline were proposed downstream of Fort Pecks water intake.

I dont think this is worth the paper its written on, the Fort Peck executive board chairman, Floyd Azure, says, throwing the 111-page risk assessment down on his desk in the sprawling tribal government complex on the outskirts of Poplar.

The risk assessment is dated 31 July 2017. Azure says the tribes have been asking TransCanada to see it for more than a year. Azure says the company refused to provide the document, saying that doing so would violate federal law.

TransCanada did not respond to multiple requests for an interview regarding Keystone XL.

Azure says the tribes finally received a copy on 27 July this year nearly a year after the assessment was written from Governor Steve Bullocks office. Ronja Abel, a spokeswoman for Bullocks office, told MTFP in an email that she downloaded the document from TransCanadas Keystone XL website after it was recently posted. The plaintiffs suing to stop the pipeline didnt have a copy until 7 August, when MTFPsent it to them.

Azure is furious, because despite years of public comment, court testimony, letters to state and federal governments, protests, news reporting, and even a personal letter to the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, the risk assessment makes no mention of Fort Pecks water network, the reservation, or the tribes.

Ive just got no confidence in them at this point, Azure says. Were basically an afterthought.

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