For months, the group gathered on the banks of the Missouri to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline has rejected the label of “protesters.” Instead, on social media they proudly refer to themselves as “water protectors,” stressing that they are needed to save the river and the Standing Rock tribe from toxic contamination. These claims, however, exaggerate both the uniqueness of the contamination risk and the scope of the impact a potential spill could have.

The Dakota Access Pipeline would not be the first pipeline to cross the Missouri River. Already, 8 pipelines carrying both natural gas and crude oil cross the river upstream of the Standing Rock reservation. Not only that, they cross upstream of the water intake for the Bismarck metropolitan area, which contains about 17 percent of the state’s population.

The communities of Bismarck and Mandan both draw their drinking water from the Missouri. Under the requirements of the federal Safe Water Drinking Act, these facilities are required to submit water quality reports to the North Dakota Department of Health each year. Despite years of pipeline operation, Bismarck’s drinking water treatment facilities consistently meet or exceed required standards.

A North Dakota Health Department analysis of the system labelled it only “mildly susceptible” to surface contamination.

In addition, the EPA advises area communities to develop drinking water contingency plans in the event of an oil spill. However, when contacted by InsideSources, the EPA was not able to provide specific details about Bismarck’s plan.

For years, the Standing Rock reservation relied on a drinking water treatment plant outside of Fort Yates, N.D. for its drinking water. A consumer confidence report describes this plant as “a conventional surface water plant with flocculators, sedimentation basins, and multimedia filters,” that treats the river water for chemical and organic contaminants and filters out sediment. Although the center continued to pass safety checks, the intake and facility were built in the 1960s and the costs to maintain the aging technology had grown prohibitively high.

“There’s been a lot of issues with [the current Fort Yates] intake,” Dave Rosencranz, the Dakotas Area manger for the Federal Bureau of Reclamations, told local radio host Rob Port. “It’s just time to replace it. It’s basically at the end of its life.”

In 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Standing Rock Rural Water System received nearly $30 million to construct a new treatment facility in Mobridge, S.D. The new facility contains an intake and pump system to carry raw water from the river to the treatment center, as well as a transmission pipeline to carry the treated water back to the communities in North Dakota.

Over the course of the last 7 years, the Standing Rock tribe has received millions of dollars of state and local funds for the improvement of its water treatment facilities. The Mobridge system also received loans from a revolving fund used by the state of South Dakota to fund water facility improvements. This plant came on line earlier in the year and once the water pipeline is complete, will provide water for the 10,000 residents of the reservation in both North and South Dakota.

While the tribe’s initial Fort Yates intake was roughly 20 miles away from the pipeline point, the new Fort Yates facility is 70 miles south of where the pipeline would cross. Given the speed of the river, it would take somewhere between 9 and 14 hours for contaminants to reach the new intake point in the event of a spill. State officials say that that delay should assuage concerns about water safety.

“The new intake really does effectively reduce the concerns that this oil pipeline could impact the tribe’s water supply,” said Julie Fedorchak, head of North Dakota’s Public Service Commission, which gave state approval to the pipeline.

Regulators point to a January 2015 oil leak in Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana as an example of where the distance between the spill and the intake protected residents. After the spill, Williston, N.D., located about 80 miles downstream, avoided water contamination by closing its intakes quickly. They believe that in the event of an accident, such quick thinking could protect the Mobridge plant as well.

Ironically, the current protests may be putting the new plant at greater risk than the pipeline. While the pipeline remains unfinished, oil from the North Dakota fields is being shipped to refineries by truck and train. Industry experts, including the Manhattan Institute, have found that these shipping methods pose a greater risk of environmental contamination than pipelines. The study found that pipeline spills were larger by volume, but occurred much less frequently than spills from trucks and trains. And one rail line carrying the crude oil right now passes less than two miles from the tribe’s new water intake.

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