DAKOTA ACCESS

Appeals court freezes construction in contested area

This story was updated at 9:28 p.m. EDT.

Dakota Access cannot continue pipeline construction in an area of North Dakota that could contain tribal burial grounds.

In a panel decision released tonight, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered Dakota Access LLC to freeze work on the contested oil pipeline within 20 miles of Lake Oahe, a dammed section of the Missouri River near the tribe's reservation.

The administrative injunction freezes work while the court continues to consider a request for an emergency injunction.

Though Lake Oahe and its shorelines are currently off-limits to Dakota Access while the Army Corps of Engineers considers whether to grant an easement there, most of the pipeline corridor stretching 20 miles from the lake is on private land. The Obama administration last week asked for a voluntary halt to construction along the private land, but the company has argued that any delay will cost millions of dollars.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe says the contested area, part of its ancestral homelands, contains a burial ground that has been bulldozed by Dakota Access and may hold undiscovered artifacts. The company has countered that the pipeline's route was meticulously planned to avoid sensitive sites and that the area at issue lies directly above an existing natural gas pipeline — making it impossible that any burial grounds exist there.

A three-judge panel concluded tonight that a narrow work freeze within 20 miles of the lake was appropriate while it considers the tribe's request for an emergency injunction.

"The purpose of this administrative injunction is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the emergency motion for injunction pending appeal and should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion," the panel said in a short order.

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On the panel were Republican appointees Judges Janice Rogers Brown and Thomas Griffith and Democratic appointee Judge Nina Pillard. Brown noted that she would not have granted the injunction.

The temporary injunction is the first big legal win for the tribe, which lodged a challenge to the Army Corps' permitting system for pipelines in July. A lower court rejected the tribe's request for a broader injunction last week. Meanwhile, thousands of tribal members and allies have gathered in North Dakota to demonstrate against the project, which they say threatens cultural artifacts and water.

"Although disappointing, we respect the process and the court's decision to issue this temporary injunction so it can spend time considering the facts of the case," said Craig Stevens, spokesman for the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, a coalition of business and labor groups supporting Dakota Access. "[District Court Judge James Boasberg], in his thoughtful and thorough opinion last week, confirmed that the Army Corps of Engineers did their jobs expertly and in accordance with the law. We are confident that another fair review of the corps' work will render the same decision."

Twitter: @ellengilmer Email: egilmer@eenews.net

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