This week a federal judge in Montana temporarily blocked TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil over 1,000 miles from the Alberta tar sands to Nebraska. The judge ordered additional environmental review—a decision Indigenous activist Angeline Cheek considers a temporary win.
"But also," she says, "our fight is never over."
Cheek lives near the Missouri River on Montana's Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The Missouri borders the reservation on the south and provides much of its drinking water.
"We need to start thinking ahead like our ancestors thought," she says. "We can't forget who we are."
Although the Keystone XL pipeline might bring short-term job opportunities to her reservation, Cheek opposes it. She's been leading awareness walks and informational workshops about the pipeline.
Until Thursday's court decision many people on and near Cheek's reservation were preparing for protests like the ones in Standing Rock. Now the pipeline, and preparations for protest, are on hold—for the time being.
Concerns about leaks and crime
Katie Thunderchild lives on the Fort Peck reservation too and is worried that if the pipeline is built, it could leak.
"And where does that leak go? It goes into the water," she says. "And we drink that water, and we get sick, and it just goes on down the line."
TransCanada says the pipeline will be buried more than 50 feet below the river. Federal regulations require a pipeline is buried four feet beneath a major river crossing. TransCanada has state-of-the-art monitoring systems that can register pressure drops and can shutdown the pipeline within minutes.
But Thunderchild says she's also worried about the kind of people pipeline construction could bring. This is an isolated place — everyone knows everyone — but Keystone's developers are planning to build temporary housing near the Fort Peck Indian Reservation for a surge of out-of-state workers.
"What is their background," Thunderchild says. "Did they commit a crime, does it involve children, guns, all of that other stuff. Drugs?"
She's afraid because of what happened during the nearby Bakken oil boom, when a lot of men came to this isolated pocket of America to find work in the oil fields. During that time Eastern Montana saw higher rates of sexual assault and violence. At least one murder was pinned to the boom when two men who had come to the area looking for work killed a teacher.
Commitment to build
TransCanada says they drug-test all of their workers, that they would live in work camps with security cameras, and that they have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to guns.
The Keystone XL was blocked by the Obama administration in 2015, which cited environmental and economic concerns. President Donald Trump revived it and now that a judge has suspended it, he expects that decision to be appealed.
"It was a political decision made by a judge," he told reporters Friday. "I think it's a disgrace."
Trump said he wants the pipeline to happen because of the jobs it could bring.
"I approved it," he said. "It's ready to start."
In a statement, TransCanada said it's exploring its options, and that the company remains committed to building Keystone XL.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The latest chapter in the controversial Keystone oil pipeline played out late this week. A federal judge in Montana temporarily blocked the project and asked for an additional environmental review. Indigenous activists are cheering the judge's decision, but both sides predict that it isn't over. Yellowstone Public Radio's Nate Hegyi reports.
NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: The Keystone XL pipeline was slated to begin construction in 2019.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I approved it. It's ready to start.
HEGYI: President Donald Trump revived it after the Obama administration killed it in 2015, citing environmental and economic concerns. The pipeline would carry oil more than 1,000 miles from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. And this week, a federal court in Montana blocked it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: Well, it was a political decision made by a judge. I think it's a disgrace.
HEGYI: Trump blasted the reversal before he flew to France. Indigenous activist Angeline Cheek lives on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. For her, this is a small win.
ANGELINE CHEEK: But also true, our fight is never over.
HEGYI: The court ruled the State Department and Keystone's developer, TransCanada, will need to take a second look at the project's environmental and economic impacts before it moves forward. Cheeks says she's wary of the temporary nature of the judge's decision. It doesn't outright end the pipeline's construction. Instead, it presses pause.
CHEEK: The key words are until further notice.
HEGYI: The pipeline would cross the Missouri River in Montana. It's an important source of water for the Fort Peck Reservation. TransCanada says the pipeline would be buried more than 50 feet below the river. The company has state-of-the-art monitoring systems that can register pressure drops and can shut down the pipeline within minutes. Katie Thunderchild lives on the Fort Peck reservation. She isn't sold.
KATIE THUNDERCHILD: You know, what if it does leak? You know, we can't predict that. You know, they do break.
HEGYI: And she says a leak would get into their drinking water.
THUNDERCHILD: We drink that water, then we get sick, and then it just goes on down the line.
HEGYI: Thunderchild says she's also worried about the kind of people pipeline construction would bring. Keystone's developers are planning temporary housing for a surge of out-of-town workers.
THUNDERCHILD: What is their background? Did they commit a crime? Does it involve children? Does it - you know, guns and all the other stuff and drugs.
HEGYI: She's afraid because of what happened during the nearby Bakken oil boom. A lot of men came to this isolated pocket of America to find work in the oil fields. During that time, there were higher rates of sexual assault and violence in eastern Montana, and at least one murder was pinned to the boom when two men who had come to the area looking for work killed a teacher. TransCanada says they drug test all of their workers, that they live in work camps with security cameras and that they have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to guns. But Thunderchild has two young daughters, and the pipeline project scares her. She watches one of them play in the grass. She says the pipeline carries too much risk for her people, their water and their future. Her children think about that when they drink water on the reservation, she says.
THUNDERCHILD: Children know. They know what's right and what's wrong.
HEGYI: Before this ruling, Thunderchild's community and others in eastern Montana were bracing for a potential Standing Rock-style protest. Now that possibility, like the pipeline, is on pause - at least for now. In a statement, TransCanada says it remains committed to building Keystone XL. For NPR News, I'm Nate Heygi in Missoula, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.