'It’s Like Bringing Smallpox Blankets In': Tribes Fight Keystone XL Amid Covid-19

Lakota spiritual leader Chief Arvol Looking Horse attends a demonstration against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House on January 28, 2015.

Lakota spiritual leader Chief Arvol Looking Horse attends a demonstration against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House on January 28, 2015.
Photo: Getty

The threat of an unknown virus destroying Native American communities is as old as colonialism itself. When European empires sailed to North American coasts in the 15th century, settlers arrived with death as a companion. Diseases such as smallpox and flu decimated the number of strains, putting some on the verge of extinction. Germs were the first genocide against indigenous peoples long before the direct violent attack of white settlers.

Nowthe threat looks a little different. The Covid-19 pandemic has killed thousands of people worldwide, and the US has officially issued the most cases in the world. To protect public health and prevent the virus from spreading, health officials advise non-essential companies to close and people to stay at home. However, despite the global health crisis, energy company TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) is still planning to start building the controversial Keystone XL pipeline by April. The movement would continue a long line of colonial violence.

“This is an established genocidal act by those who overcome themselves as conquerors,” Faith Spotted Eagle, a grandmother of the indigenous female-led organization Brave Heart Society that has challenged the pipeline, told Earther. “It has occurred since contact.”

Different strains that the company and the federal government about Keystone XL. These tribal communities – including the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota and the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana – have always been concerned about the effects that this proposed pipeline would have on their water and cultural resources buried in the ground. Now they add the coronavirus to their list of concerns. In January TC Energy set April as the official start of construction. Since then, the parties have been legally building back and forth. Unfortunately, the court pushed back its hearing on this decision to April 16 – more than two weeks after construction is said to have commenced.

In response to the urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic, the tribes filed a temporary restraining order against TC Energy and the federal government on March 17. The goal was to immediately halt construction of the pipeline, as a temporary restraining order is quite exceptional, Wesley Furlong, a staff attorney representing the tribes with the Native American Rights Fund, Earther said. Still, the court said the warrant won’t be discussed until mid-April. However, in this application, the strain adds the more recent coronavirus issue.

‘[The argument] is definitely a product of the moment we live in now, “Furlong said. “We were just briefing … then this [virus] really exploded across the country and [presents] itself as an issue that the tribes are deeply concerned about – and there is a mechanism that should allow us to address those concerns in the future. ‘

The submission states:

In addition, in light of the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, the temporary nature of the construction workers building and living in these camps poses a serious and immediate threat to human health and safety for the tribes. “

TC Energy has commented that this argument is invalid because tribes never expressed these concerns during public comment periods in 2014 and 2019. However, those comment periods took a long time before the corona virus threatened the world, let alone their communities. The company continues his legal response to claim that the virus (emphasis is on theirs) “is not negative environment effect of construction of Keystone XL ”and therefore not protected under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Two legal experts told Earther that this defense is as weak as hell. Federal environmental laws, such as NEPA, exist to protect public health, Carla Fredericks, the director of the American Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado, told Earther. In addition, the law also looks at how a project would affect the quality of the ‘human environment’, so such effects of the virus should be under the umbrella, wrote Deborah Sivas, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School, in an e-mail to Earther.

“It seems unlikely that the risk of spreading disease is not within that framework,” said Sivas.

One of the main concerns is the risk of ‘human camps’ popping up when construction of a project like this starts. These temporary constellations of workers are already a threat to the physical safety of women and children, but it could also be vectors for covid-19 to spread to native and surrounding communities.

“When TC Energy brings those men in, it’s like bringing in smallpoxes,” said Spotted Eagle. ‘That’s just the way it is. It is exactly the same action and is sanctioned by the government. “

Prove the risk of something yet to happen challenging in court. Still, the threat to tribal communities is something to be taken seriously, especially because of the health issues they already face and the lack of easy access to quality healthcare. And the unknowns are somehow a reason to act and postpone construction.

“In some ways, this crisis is new and unprecedented, and in other ways, the health effects have been a reality that the naive American communities have been dealing with for a long time,” Fredericks told Earther.

The health crisis that is already hitting the Indian country is not helping the situation. Are Native Americans probably have diabetes in the United States, which is a major risk factor for the coronavirus. This population also sees double the rate of heart disease than the rest of the United States and has the highest prevalence of cigarette smoking in the country, which is weakening the respiratory system attacks the virus.

So far Indian Health Services confirmed at least 83 cases of Covid-19 among the 2,156 Native Americans and Alaska Natives tested. The Rosebud Sioux strain confirmed his first coronavirus case on Thursday. Tribes across Montana, including Fort Belknap, have already done that declared emergencies in preparation for the virus to reach their communities.

The added threat of bringing camps to men this infectious virus for communities as they build a pipeline they don’t want adds salt to an already bloody wound.

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