By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor
RAPID CITY - A massive, new spill from a bitumen pipeline in the tar-sands oil fields of Alberta, Canada’s Athabascan territory fueled a series of pipeline protests by Native Americans and allies across South Dakota, beginning July 24.
Taking part in the protests were the Yankton and Rosebud Sioux tribes, members of Indigenous Environmental Network and the No KXL Dakota Coalition, including: Dakota Rural Action, South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, BOLD Nebraska, Ihanktonwan Treaty Council, Kul Wicasa Treaty Council, Oyate Wahacanka Woecun, and many others.
They paraded a banner through the streets of Rapid City on July 24, to represent a black snake, their nickname for TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL Pipeline.
On July 26 in Ft. Pierre and Pierre, they staged the Four Directions Resistance Ride, March and Rally to precede state Public Utilities Commission evidentiary hearings set for July 27 on TransCanada’s permit renewal application.
Daily pickets of the commission’s hearings were organized to follow.
The Canadian company wants to build the Keystone XL tar-sands crude-oil conduit across 314 miles of Lakota Territory, through the South Dakota counties of Harding, Butte, Perkins, Meade, Pennington, Haakon, Jones, Lyman and Tripp.
In the latest tar-sands crude-oil pipeline snafu, the Chinese-owned Nexen dumped more than 1.5 million gallons of toxic diluted dilbit (diluted bitumen) south of Ft. McMurray before a leak could be stopped July 17, according to The Associated Press.
The volume of the spill surpasses that of the largest inland oil spill ever in the United States that of Enbridge oil spill, which polluted the Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, and is still the subject of cleanup efforts.
The Chinese-owned company responsible for the Ft. McMurray spill, China National Offshore Oil Corp. Ltd., is also responsible for the May 19 pipeline rupture near Santa Barbara, California, which dumped 100,000 gallons of oil, closing Pacific Ocean beaches for a month.
As the Alberta spill soon became one of the largest ever in Canada, Native Americans and landowners in the path of other potential accidents from the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline urged the Public Utilities Commission to deny TransCanada Corp.’s application.
Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way) founder Debra White Plume, one of the promoters of the actions to prevent pipeline expansion, submitted testimony to the commission, noting that all the tribes in South Dakota have said “no” to the Keystone XL Pipeline.
“Now it is your turn to say no,” she said. The line would cross many important parts of the Mississippi watershed, as well as community water supplies, she said.
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), representing the people near the recent Canadian oil spill, immediately lashed out against the escalating mining and transportation of tar-sands crude-oil in its ancestral territories, including the boreal forests of Alberta.
The nation “is concerned that without addressing the current poor environmental standards coupled with increasing development in the region will only result in more spills and incidents. These types of incidents are seen as leading causes of degradation of the environment and ultimately the rights and title of First Nations in the region,” it said in a written statement calling the accident “the largest recorded spill in Canadian history of toxic water, bitumen and sand.”
The Alberta Energy Regulator and Nexen’s Long Lake Oil Sands Project, which are investigating the spill, said it flowed into a large area of mossy swamp, known as muskeg, creating concern among the First Nation population.
“A spill this size into the muskeg, which is an important part of the eco-system in the region and houses many of our medicines, berries and habitat for species our people rely on for sustenance, is extremely serious,” AFCN Chief Allan Adam stated.
“The muskeg are a part of the basin and feed into the groundwater system,” he said. “The location of the spill is dangerously close to the Clearwater River that flows directly into the Athabasca River,” he noted.
“The repercussions from the incident could potentially be felt far and wide by those that rely on the Athabasca Basin,” he added.
Nexen has been the subject of repeated spills, investigations, and calls for better regulation.
AFCN noted that reclamation is still incomplete on a 2011 Nexen pipeline dilbit spill into the muskeg near the community of Little Buffalo.
“There is no way to clean or reclaim the muskeg,” said AFCN Communications Coordinator Eriel Deranger. “Destruction and contamination like this that directly affects key component of our eco-systems is affecting First Nations ability to access lands and territories for hunting, fishing, gathering and trapping rights, rights protected by both the constitution and our treaties.
“Yet, incidents like this continue to occur with little regard to the long term implication it has on our communities and our rights,” Deranger commented.
First Nations across Canada, including the ACFN, have been challenging various resources extraction applications, proposals and in production projects citing violations of treaty and aboriginal rights as defined by Section 35 of the Canadian constitution and treaty agreements throughout the country.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recent report highlighted a need to ‘develop a holistic vision of reconciliation that embraces all aspects of the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, and to set the standard for international achievement.’
The report referred to the need to consider the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes recognition of the right to free, prior and informed consent, a model Canada has been unwilling to entertain.
Adam said it’s time for the government and industry to “come to terms with the fact that the rights and title of First Nation people are interdependent with flourishing, clean and healthy eco-systems. If we continue to accept that these types of incidents are the status quo of development we are also accepting the illegal abrogation of the rights and title of First Nations,” he warned.
The ACFN has been critical of poor regulation of the industry in the tar-sands region, calling on the government to implement stronger policies and processes for enforcement.
“This shouldn’t just be a concern for First Nations,” Deranger said. “Muskeg is not just important to the eco-system and First Nations but it’s also one of the planet’s richest carbon sinks, something the government should be very concerned about given their commitments to addressing climate change in the province.”
Adam stressed the climate change issue on which U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to base is decision on federal permitting of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
“Climate change, declining water tables exacerbated by dewatering from industry and drought, increased human activity and an increased incident of spills, ruptures, and blow outs in the region are creating a dire situation,” Adam said.
“We are reaching a point where our members may not be able to meaningfully exercise their treaty and aboriginal rights,” he said.
Gary Dorr, an activist fighting the Keystone XL Pipeline made a similar point, calling on Obama to cancel the project on the grounds of treaty rights.
“Now is the time for President Obama to step in, recognize that this process is flawed and acknowledge the treaty reserved rights of the Oceti Sakowin in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed the oil leak to Plains Midstream Canada.