The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Sunday that it won't grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline in southern North Dakota, handing a victory to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its supporters, who argued the project would threaten the tribe's water source and cultural sites.
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North Dakota's leaders criticized the decision, with Gov. Jack Dalrymple calling it a "serious mistake" that "prolongs the dangerous situation" of having several hundred protesters who are camped out on federal land during cold, wintry weather. U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer said it's a "very chilling signal" for the future of infrastructure in the United States.
The four-state, $3.8 billion project is largely complete except for the now-blocked segment underneath Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir. Assistant Secretary for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy said in a news release that her decision was based on the need to "explore alternate routes" for the pipeline's crossing. Her full decision doesn't rule out that it could cross under the reservoir or north of Bismarck.
"Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it's clear that there's more work to do," Darcy said. "The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing."
The company constructing the pipeline, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, released a statement Sunday night slamming the decision as politically motivated and alleging that President Obama's administration was determined to delay the matter until he leaves office.
"The White House's directive today to the Corps for further delay is just the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions by an administration which has abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency," the company said.
President-elect Donald Trump, a pipeline supporter, will take office in January, although it wasn't immediately clear what steps his administration would be able to take to reverse the Army Corps' latest decision or how quickly that could happen.
The decision came a day before the government's deadline for the several hundred people at the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, encampment to leave the federal land. But demonstrators say they're prepared to stay, and authorities say they won't forcibly remove them.
As the news spread Sunday, cheers and cheers and chants of "mni wichoni" — "water is life" in Lakota Sioux — broke out among the protesters. Some in the crowd banged drums. Miles Allard, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux, said he was pleased but remained cautious, saying, "We don't know what Trump is going to do."
"The whole world is watching," Allard added. "I'm telling all our people to stand up and not to leave until this is over."
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Sunday that the Department of Justice will "continue to monitor the situation" and stands "ready to provide resources to help all those who can play a constructive role in easing tensions."
"The safety of everyone in the area - law enforcement officers, residents and protesters alike - continues to be our foremost concern," she added.
Carla Youngbear of the Meskwaki Potawatomi tribe made her third trip from central Kansas to be at the protest site.
"I have grandchildren, and I'm going to have great grandchildren," she said. "They need water. Water is why I'm here."
Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault didn't immediately respond to messages left seeking comment.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, whose department has done much of the policing for the protests, said that "local law enforcement does not have an opinion" on the easement and that his department will continue to "enforce the law."
U.S. Secretary for the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement that the Corps' "thoughtful approach ... ensures that there will be an in-depth evaluation of alternative routes for the pipeline and a closer look at potential impacts."
Earlier Sunday, an organizer with Veterans Stand for Standing Rock said tribal elders had asked the military veterans not to have confrontations with law enforcement officials, adding the group is there to help out those who've dug in against the project.
About 250 veterans gathered about a mile from the main camp for a meeting with organizer Wes Clark Jr., the son of former Democratic presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark. The group had said about 2,000 veterans were coming, but it wasn't clear how many actually arrived.
"We have been asked by the elders not to do direct action," Wes Clark Jr. said. He added that the National Guard and law enforcement have armored vehicles and are armed, warning: "If we come forward, they will attack us."
Instead, he told the veterans, "If you see someone who needs help, help them out."
Authorities moved a blockade from the north end of the Backwater Bridge with the conditions that protesters stay south of it and come there only if there is a prearranged meeting. Authorities also asked protesters not to remove barriers on the bridge, which they have said was damaged in the late October conflict that led to several people being hurt, including a serious arm injury.
"That heavy presence is gone now and I really hope in this de-escalation they'll see that, and in good faith . the leadership in those camps will start squashing the violent factions," Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said in a statement, reiterating that any violation will "will result in their arrest."
Veterans Stand for Standing Rock's GoFundMe.com page had raised more than $1 million of its $1.2 million goal by Sunday — money due to go toward food, transportation and supplies. Cars waiting to get into the camp Sunday afternoon were backed up for more than a half-mile.
"People are fighting for something, and I thought they could use my help," said Navy veteran and Harvard graduate student Art Grayson. The 29-year-old from Cambridge, Massachusetts, flew the first leg of the journey, then rode from Bismarck in the back of a pickup truck. He has finals this week, but told professors, "I'll see you when I get back."
Steven Perry, a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran who's a member of the Little Traverse Bay band of Odawa Indians in Michigan, spoke of one of the protesters' main concerns: that the pipeline could pollute drinking water. "This is not just a native issue," he said, "This is an issue for everyone."
Art Woodson and two other veterans drove 17 hours straight from Flint, Michigan, a city whose lead-tainted water crisis parallels with the tribe's fight over water, he said.
"We know in Flint that water is in dire need," the 49-year-old disabled Gulf War Army veteran said. "In North Dakota, they're trying to force pipes on people. We're trying to get pipes in Flint for safe water."
Some veterans will take part in a prayer ceremony Monday, during which they'll apologize for historical detrimental conduct by the military toward Native Americans and ask for forgiveness, Clark said. He also called the veterans' presence "about right and wrong and peace and love."
Associated Press writers Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis and Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.