Standing with the Sioux, protesters decry Dakota pipeline project as ‘environmental racism’

The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is 1,700 miles away from Philadelphia, but hundreds of people took to the streets here Tuesday morning to support efforts to block the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline an oil company plans to build near reservation land in North Dakota.

The morning protest was part of a national day of action that drove thousands around the country to march and chant against the $3.8 billion project, which critics fear could ruin the reservation’s water supply and sacred sites.

“Water is life!” protesters chanted, as they marched around Center City and stopped periodically to stage die-ins outside banks funding the pipeline, including the Cherry Hill, New Jersey-headquartered TD Bank, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers, which must decide whether to permit pipeline builders to tunnel under the Missouri River reservoir.

The pipeline would carry crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois, where it would be shipped to refineries to be turned into fuel. It’s already more than three-quarters completed, but the government halted construction in September amid mounting protests over its impact on the Standing Rock reservation, which draws its drinking water from the reservoir.

Demonstrations there have grown increasingly violent, with security officers and police using rubber bullets and unleashing dogs on protesters.

The march here held far less drama, save for the hundreds of gridlocked motorists caught by surprise by a roving mob of sign-waving, chanting, singing, and street-blocking protesters.

Tuesday’s day of action was expected to be the biggest coordinated protest against the pipeline project since construction stalled.

“We need our government to work for us, not for the oil companies!” shouted Ron Whyte, an organizer with Deep Green Philly. “We’re calling on the Army Corps to back clean energy. Don’t support a company that is literally killing people. We are trading our future for the short-term profit of companies.”

Trine Smith, of Philly Solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux, agreed: “We have a right to live! We have a right that our children live! We have a right that our plants and insects and animals live on for future generations!”

Coming after a week of daily protests stemming from Donald Trump’s win, the Standing Rock protesters found a Trump tie-in, saying his climate-change denial dims hopes that pipeline foes would find a friend in the new president.

Some also likened the Standing Rock struggle to concerns here about a refinery’s controversial plans to build a terminal for oil imports and exports at the Southport Marine site here.

“It’s environmental racism,” said Whyte, explaining that the potentially polluting project would be located in a South Philadelphia neighborhood populated primarily by poor people and people of color, just as Dakota Access Pipeline could endanger disenfranchised Native Americans. 

“We need to honor this earth,” agreed Elle Rader of Upper Darby, who marched with the Granny Peace Brigade. “We need to put people before profits.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.