The federal government stepped into the fight over the Dakota Access oil pipeline Friday, ordering work to stop on one segment of the project in North Dakota and asking the Texas-based company building it to "voluntarily pause" action on a wider span that an American Indian tribe says holds sacred artifacts.
The government's order came minutes after a judge rejected a request by the Standing Rock Sioux to halt construction of the $3.8 billion, four-state pipeline.
The tribe, whose cause has drawn thousands to join their protest, has challenged the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to grant permits for the pipeline at more than 200 water crossings. Tribal leaders allege that the project violates several federal laws and will harm water supplies. The tribe also says ancient sites have been disturbed during construction.
The tribe's chairman, Dave Archambault II, spoke at the state Capitol in front of several hundred people, some carrying signs that read "Respect Our Water" and "Water Is Sacred." He called the federal announcement "a beautiful start" and told reporters that the dispute is a long way from over.
"A public policy win is a lot stronger than a judicial win," he said. "Our message is heard."
A joint statement from the Army and the Departments of Justice and the Interior said construction bordering or under Lake Oahe would not go forward and asked the Texas-based pipeline builder, Energy Transfer Partners, to stop work 20 miles to the east and west of the lake while the government reconsiders "any of its previous decisions."
The statement also said the case "highlighted the need for a serious discussion" about nationwide reforms "with respect to considering tribes' views on these types of infrastructure projects."
Vicki Granado, a spokeswoman for the company, said it had no comment.
The president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council said he was disappointed with the government's decision to intervene and called it "flagrant overreach" that will result in more oil being moved by trucks and trains.
The 1,172-mile project will carry nearly a half-million barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota's oil fields through South Dakota and Iowa to an existing pipeline in Patoka, Illinois.
In denying the tribe's request for a temporary injunction, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington said that the court "does not lightly countenance any depredation of lands that hold significance" to the tribe and that, given the federal government's history with the tribe, the court scrutinized the permitting process "with particular care."
Nonetheless, the judge wrote, the tribe "has not demonstrated that an injunction is warranted here."
Attorney Jan Hasselman with the environmental group Earthjustice, who filed the lawsuit on the tribe's behalf, said earlier this week any such decision would be challenged. "We will have to pursue our options with an appeal and hope that construction isn't completed while that (appeal) process is going forward," he said.
Tribal historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard said Boasberg's ruling gave her "a great amount of grief. My heart is hurting, but we will continue to stand, and we will look for other legal recourses."
Earlier in the day, thousands of protesters, many from tribes around the country, gathered near the reservation that straddles the North and South Dakota border.
"There's never been a coming together of tribes like this," according to Judith LeBlanc, a member of the Caddo Nation in Oklahoma and director of the New York-based Native Organizers Alliance. People came from as far as New York and Alaska, some bringing their families and children, and hundreds of tribal flags dotted the camp, along with American flags flown upside-down in protest.
The judge's order was announced over a loudspeaker there. John Nelson of Portland, Oregon, came to the camp to support his grandson, Archambault. The 82-year-old says he was not surprised by the ruling, "but it still hurts."
State authorities announced this week that law enforcement officers from across the state were being mobilized at the protest site. They said some National Guard members will work security at traffic checkpoints and another 100 would be on standby. The Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association asked the Justice Department to send monitors to the site because it said racial profiling is occurring.
Nearly 40 people have been arrested since the protest began in April, including Archambault.
A week ago, protesters and construction workers were injured when, according to tribal officials, workers bulldozed sites on private land that the tribe says in court documents are "of great historic and cultural significance." Energy Transfer Partners denied the allegations.
The state's Private Investigation and Security Board received complaints about the use of dogs and will look into whether the private security teams at the site are properly registered and licensed, board attorney Monte Rogneby said Friday, adding that he would not name the firms.
On Thursday, North Dakota's archaeologist said a piece of private land that was not previously surveyed by the state would be surveyed for artifacts next week.
The company plans to complete the pipeline this year, and said in court papers that stopping the project would cost $1.4 billion the first year, mostly due to lost revenue in hauling crude.
A status conference in the tribe's lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 16.