WMC News & Features

The Dakota Pipeline: Fact vs. fake news

Standing Rock Denver Post Helen H Richardson
As many as 10,000 people occupied the proposed site of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo by Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post.

There has been plenty of attention lately to “fake news”—fabricated stories circulated in social media or by fringe websites. But when it comes to coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, mainstream news media have often blurred the lines between what is fake and what is fact, and have all but ignored the effects that projects like DAPL have on women.

Some facts we all agree upon: the Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.7 billion project by the energy company Energy Transfer Partners to build a 1,172-mile pipeline from the Bakken Region of North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The Tribe has protested the project, and starting in August 2016, a group of resisters, numbering as many as 10,000, occupied the site to prevent further development of the project. On December 4, the Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement needed to complete the project.

Beyond these facts, much of the coverage by mainstream news organizations has been selective, one-sided, and inaccurate. When media give misleading portrayals of such crucial movements, it can affect public opinion and ultimately have an impact on outcomes.

Here are some of the key points of media negligence:

The Route: The majority of mainstream news coverage has reported that the Tribe refused to meet with the company or Army Corps about the route. Articles in The Hill, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, along with other outlets, repeatedly cited the Tribe’s failure to meet with ETP or the Army Corps. Yet recordings of such meetings going as far back as 2014 have been released by the Tribe. During this engagement the Tribe stated its opposition to any pipeline running so close to its only water supply. Yet the company selected a southern route by tribal lands because the northern route “would be near and could jeopardize the drinking water of the residents in the city of Bismarck.”

The Environment: The media definitely focused on environmental activists joining forces with the Standing Rock Sioux, but it rarely if ever covered any technical environmental content by which the Army Corps environmental assessment that found “no significant impact” could be substantiated or disputed. Fake or fact? Well, compare the finding of “no significant impact” with the map below that shows pipeline accidents in the U.S. since 2010. The area where the Dakotas and Minnesota converge has relatively few spills because it is the territory of the Great Sioux Nation. Failure to report facts on the state of oil spills in North Dakota is a major omission, but even more glaring is the omission of the company’s environmental track record. According to the National Lawyers Guild, ETP and its affiliates “have a long history of violations of environmental laws including pending lawsuits by the states of New Jersey, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the City of Breau Bridge in Louisiana over MTBE contamination of groundwater, as well as citations for releases of hazardous materials from its pipelines and facilities” in seven states.

Adamson Dapl
This map shows a sampling of areas where oil and gas pipeline accidents have occurred between 2010 and 2015. This map was originally published in June 2015 at hcn.org and is provided courtesy of High Country News.

The Violence: Footage of militarized police and heavily armed private security using high-powered water hoses in 20-degree temperatures, rubber bullets, sound cannons, and tear gas against the unarmed water protectors sparked news debates on who was at fault. Yet this same mass media has failed to cover the sexual violence that is a dirty little by-product of large-scale oil and gas production operations. Rapid oil and gas development has brought an unprecedented rise of violent crime on and near the nearby Fort Berthold reservation. Specifically, the influx of well-paid male oil and gas workers, living in temporary housing often referred to as “man camps,” has coincided with a disturbing increase in sex trafficking of Native women. According to one report, sexual assaults on women on the reservation have increased by 75 percent. Prostitution and human trafficking have also become a serious problem. Local law enforcement describes Bakken as a made-to-order market for sex.

The oil companies and the pipeline construction companies take zero responsibility for their workers’ collusion in the growing sex trade and ballooning crime wave in the region. First Peoples Worldwide’s review of Bakken oil companies found that most do not have human rights policies, and all but two have no board oversight of their social impacts to communities. The benign neglect by media and the companies’ resistance to addressing the social risks of their operations leave thousands of women and children exposed to sexual assault and violence. All the while, North Dakota’s primary concern in the face of this ongoing violence against women has been to marshal the law enforcement, National Guard, and security forces not to protect the women but to protect the private property of the company.

The Story Is Buried: Violence against women is widespread across extractive industry site operations. It is a social pollution as toxic as any chemical released into the environment. Yet, when most investors gauge the risks for potential collateral damage, they focus on the possible environmental risks of drilling, fracking, or mining and consider familiar arguments: ground water quality, strip mining, air pollution, and waste management. Even the Securities and Exchange Commission does not require corporations to report on community relations or human rights due to their perceived lack of material relevance, thus burying any negative social impact and corporate accountability to the victims.

However, investors make decisions based upon risk, and the costs of social risks are adding up. For example, John Ruggie, the former U.N. special representative for business and human rights, recently estimated that for mining companies, “there is a cost somewhere between $20 million to $30 million a week for operational disruptions by communities.” So last November, at the annual Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing, a panel was held for the very first time on The Truth About Violence Against Women and Gender Inequality. This groundbreaking panel included ideas for women’s groups on how to use shareholder advocacy to increase accountability and awareness among extractives, trucking, hotels, and other industries in the forefront of violence against women. One example of positive action is Mercy Investments’ Truckers against Trafficking.

The fact is this tragic scene of conflict, environmental destruction, and violence against women is playing out across the globe and not just at the DAPL site in North Dakota. No one knows whether the Trump administration will adhere to the current mandate by the Army Corps of Engineers to reroute the pipeline. About 700 people remain at the protest camp, and many say they will stay until the project is halted for good. As this crisis continues, it’s crucial that the public hear the full story from media.

More articles by Category: Environment, Health, Media, Violence against women
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