Members of the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Northeast Montana are trying to negotiate with energy company TransCanada to reroute the Keystone XL pipeline downstream of their drinking water source after past oil drilling destroyed their reservation’s aquifer.
The Fort Peck reservation is bordered on the south by the Missouri River, with its tribal seat of Poplar and larger city of Wolf Point sitting just off the banks. A quarter-mile west of the reservation’s southwest corner, where the Milk River meets the Missouri, is where TransCanada has acquired state and federal permits for Alberta tar sands oil to ford the river through the Keystone XL pipeline.
Tribal members say the pipeline’s proposed route is endangered by an old dam spillway and threatens their only source of fresh water from an intake plant 40 miles downstream to the east in Wolf Point, which state and local agencies didn’t take into account when issuing permits.
The water intake plant and the network it feeds only came online recently, and supplies drinking and irrigation water to 30,000 people on the two-million-acre reservation and in surrounding communities. The need for what’s known as the Fort Peck Dry Prairie Regional Water System stems from oil companies dumping millions of gallons of wastewater on the reservation for decades, poisoning the groundwater.
Margaret Abbott moved to the Fort Peck reservation in the Sixties and dug a well for a country home.
“We had fairly decent water up until about the Nineties,” says Abbott, now 73.
That’s when Abbott and her neighbors started noticing changes. Their gardens died. The tap water got salty. When Abbott went to retrieve her pasturing horses, she noticed standing water in subzero temperatures.
Abbott and her neighbors lived next to the East Poplar Oil Field, a petroleum patch adjacent the Bakken shale fields first drilled by the Murphy Oil Corporation in the Fifties and tapped again in the Eighties. Pumping oil out of the ground pumps up even more water, and the oil below Fort Peck is saltier than the ocean.
In a 28-page article published in 2013, journalist Kelly Conde details how Murphy dumped 42 million gallons of wastewater brine into unlined pits between 1952 and 1955, and the further polluting that followed.
Other wastewater was injected into underground wells, as is required today – which, combined with abandoned waste wells, progressively leaked into the groundwater as a benzene-rich saline plume, ruining the surrounding aquifer.
Benzene is a carcinogen, and Abbott has beaten breast cancer twice. Plenty of her neighbors are survivors as well, but their lawyers said pinning a cancer cluster on the oil company’s water pollution was too difficult.
The tribe went to Congress, which in 2000 passed the Fort Peck Rural Water System Act to ensure safe water for Fort Peck and the surrounding counties through an eventual $300 million water pipeline from the Missouri River.
Some tribal members drank bottled water for decades. Abbott and a dozen other families sued the oil companies in federal court, reaching a settlement in 2002 for a water pipeline to connect affected homes to Poplar’s water supply. Abbott says the pipeline broke all the time.
In 2004, construction was completed on the water-intake facility on the Missouri, and by 2009 the plume had reached Poplar. In 2012, Poplar received its first water from the system, and most of the Fort Peck Dry Prairie Rural Water Supply System was up and running across the reservation and neighboring counties by 2015.
“It’s been great; we haven’t had a break. It’s just amazing. So we were breathing a sigh of relief about that, and then Keystone got approved,” Abbott says.
Abbott isn’t confident Keystone can be stopped at this point, with the new Trump administration gung-ho about it and the petrodollars behind it.
“Oh, what the hell, just do it to the Indians: I’m afraid that’s just a lot of people’s attitudes,” Abbott says.
One of the people trying to stop, reroute or delay the pipeline is Fort Peck tribal civil rights attorney and Rural Water Supply System board member Bob McAnally.
McAnally calls the pipeline a “false need” and says promises of jobs, tax revenue, environmental safety and even President Trump’s campaign pledge to build Keystone XL from American steel are malarkey.
“It’s been a trail of lies, not only from the administration to us the tribes, but from the pipeline itself,” he says.
None of this surprises McAnally, and while he believes fighting Keystone XL may ultimately be futile, his people nonetheless have a spiritual obligation to protect the Missouri, something he wants Montana politicians to understand and value in negotiations.
“Being the first tribe in the United States that they encounter, we feel that it is our duty, in fact our mandate, to put up a legal resistance,” McAnally says.
TransCanada pulled out of a March 16th meeting with the tribal executive board after protesters picketed the tribe’s headquarters, but company representatives later spoke with the tribal leaders, members of the water board and their attorneys over the phone. McAnally said they presented their case to the TransCanada representatives, but soon realized the pipeline company had only sent a PR staffer and his assistant.
Another meeting has been tentatively planned with TransCanada, though McAnally says the details haven’t been worked out yet. The tribes plan on presenting the company with three possible alternate routes for Keystone XL that variously go through or around the reservation but all cross the Missouri downstream of the water-intake plant.
When asked about the status of the Fort Peck tribes’ proposed alternate pipeline routes, TransCanada spokesman Matthew John did not answer, stating that TransCanada is “committed to ongoing engagement with Tribal Nations” as the project moves forward, and that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) signed off on its permits in 2012.
McAnally says TransCanada has told the tribes the oil project will be perfectly safe – something they’ve heard before – yet couldn’t give them any information on what would happen regarding cleaning up leaks.
“And they’re supposed to be the ones with the amazing pipeline,” he says.
McAnally says tar sands spilling into the Missouri River would be catastrophic to Fort Peck’s environment and economy, destroying decades of work on their agricultural irrigation system.
“We’d have to rebuild the entire plant,” he says.
McAnally says the water board’s position is that the final environmental impact statement TransCanada gave the U.S. Department of State in 2014 is “completely faulty.”
Much like the environmental impact statement accepted by MDEQ in 2012, TransCanada’s permit application doesn’t address Fort Peck’s water at all, primarily concerning itself with the effect on migratory bird habitats and fisheries.
“It’s faulty because they barely mentioned our water plant. They failed to recognize the danger,” McAnally says.
A coalition of the Northern Plains Resource Council, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued TransCanada in Great Falls federal court in March to block Keystone XL on the basis of an inadequate environmental impact study. McAnally says the Fort Peck tribes have been invited to join the lawsuit, but they have not yet decided if they will.
Speaking through a spokesperson, MDEQ Director Tom Livers says the threat to Fort Peck and northeast Montana’s water system “were not identified as an issue during scoping, in public comments or in the Tribal consultation process.”
Livers says the surface and groundwater analysis impact zone was only a mile out, far from the 40 miles between the pipeline’s proposed route and the water-intake plant.
In 2011 and 2015, oil pipeline spills on tributaries of the Missouri in Eastern Montana downstream of Fort Peck led the tribal executive board to pass a resolution opposing Keystone XL for the damage it could do to their water system.
“Given DEQ’s recent experience with pipeline spills and public water supplies, if we were starting this analysis today, we would likely specifically consider potential impacts to the system intake in the event of a pipeline spill, despite the intake’s distance from the proposed crossing,” Livers says.
“Similarly, given heightened awareness of pipelines and water systems, it’s likely these issues would surface today in scoping, public comment and/or tribal consultation,” he says.
Livers says MDEQ’s experience with the 2011 spill did lead to the department’s new requirement of directional drilling and additional shutoff valves at pipeline river crossings like the one planned adjacent Fort Peck.
On the other side of Keystone XL’s proposed Missouri River crossing and aimed directly at the future pipeline sits the spillway for the six-trillion-gallon reservoir contained by the 77-year-old Fort Peck Dam.
Record flooding in 2011 damaged the dam and prompted a controlled release of 50,000 cubic feet of water per second from the floodway for over a month, which damaged the spillway gates and eroded areas downstream.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projected $225 million to repair and bolster the dam and the spillway but could only afford $46 million.
While the tribal government seeks to prevent construction of Keystone XL on its current route through the courts, water protectors embittered by their loss at Standing Rock are organizing on the Fort Peck Reservation to oppose the pipeline in the streets.
The family home of one of Abbott’s students sits on a natural well north of Wolf Point not yet polluted by the migrating saline plume and unconnected to the rural water network. Tressa Welch says that although her family could hook up to the water network, they won’t, as the water’s integrity has been compromised by Keystone XL.
“I’m against the pipeline because it threatens my way of life, and if you threaten my way of life, you threaten me,” the 26-year-old says.
Welch was part of the demonstrations on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was rerouted to just above the reservation after residents of the 92-percent white city of Bismarck felt their water was threatened when the pipe crossed the Missouri upstream of them.
Now Welch is one of the organizers of Fort Peck Oyate, the tribal group of a few dozen protesters whose peaceful action scared off TransCanada negotiators from the executive board meeting using an old Dakota Access protest sign repurposed to read “KILL THE BLACK SNAKE STOP THE KXL PIPELINE.” (McAnally speculates TransCanada wasn’t actually scared off, but simply wasn’t prepared and took the protest as an excuse not to meet.)
The group – which only decided on their name on April 11th – organized a prayer walk across the 40 miles of U.S. Route 2 paralleling the Missouri to Keystone XL’s proposed river crossing. Welch’s two-year-old daughter was the youngest marcher.
Fort Peck Oyate’s next march is planned for April 22nd, and will bisect the reservation from the Canadian border in the north to the Missouri’s banks. Welch says anyone willing to peacefully participate should march.
As negotiations with TransCanada are ongoing and possible construction still a ways off, Welch says the group’s goal for the time being is to raise awareness in the tribal community to the threat the pipeline poses.
“A lot of people are uninformed here,” Welch says.
Though the executive board tells its constituents it opposes construction of the pipeline, its meetings with TransCanada have been closed, which Welch says makes the board’s sincerity hard to believe.
Welch doesn’t want the pipeline rerouted downstream of the intake plant – she wants construction terminated, as any river crossing threatens communities downstream.
“I’m against the Black Snake entirely,” she says.