As protests escalated in North Dakota, Jennifer Veilleux sat in her office at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, reading an environmental assessment of the Dakota Access Pipeline over and over again. The report, prepared by the company developing the pipeline, raised red flags. An international water security and transboundary river post-doctoral researcher, Veilleux was used to vetting assessments. The one in front of her didn’t have information about appropriate methods for monitoring what people, waterways, and ecosystems leaks in the pipeline could affect.
She scoured the internet, searching for the major waterways the pipeline would impact, and where Indigenous people lived in relation to those – basic information she couldn’t find anywhere.
So she decided to map it herself.
What resulted were two detailed socio-ecological maps of the Missouri River Basin, created by Veilleux and the team she assembled, in total 16 geographers, cartographers, lawyers, and researchers who are all collaborating voluntarily. One outlines major waterways the pipeline would intersect and possibly leak into and the nearby tribal lands. The other shows the percentage of Indigenous people by county living near waterways that could be affected by the pipeline, which crosses four Western states.
What she found is that there are nine major intersections between the proposed pipeline and rivers in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa where oil could possibly meet water. Using census data, the team mapped the number of Indigenous people living on reservations, in cities and on rural land near these waterways in the basin as well, which extends West into Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Montana.
The pipeline has many risks for those populations and the places they live, Veilleux said. During construction, invasive species, fungus, and microbes can be transported if the equipment is not handled carefully. The drilling fluid used to install the pipeline could leak into groundwater or the river and contaminate it.
Once the pipeline is transporting oil, there are bigger concerns, if it spills. Reservation land flanks lakes and rivers that some residents get drinking water from, and millions of people live downstream, in the watershed. There are many other small tributaries and wetlands off the main waterways, ecosystems that would also be threatened by a leak, and some groundwater aquifers in the region that could be contaminated by oil. There are three endangered species in the basin whose habitats could be affected: two water birds, a piping plover and least tern, and the pallid sturgeon.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, which raises issues of tribal sovereignty, water security, and environmental justice, has mobilized Indigenous people from around the world, as well as spurring protests in cities across the U.S. It’s also motivating academics like Veilleux who find parallels within their research. “I try to elevate voices of people who are being moved for modern development,” she says of her other research projects, which have looked at water security for indigenous people living near the Nile River in Ethiopia, the Mara River in Tanzania, and the Mekong River in Laos. She said Standing Rock resonated because she considers the Missouri River a transboundary watershed – it crosses tribal land and various states – and pipeline construction may impact water quality, directly or indirectly. She wanted to supplement that information about the tribes, which she said is missing from the environmental assessment.
Veilleux’ research is starting to gain attention from other researchers and tribal leaders. She is now collaborating with cartographer Carl Sack, who has been creating his own maps, one which shows how the pipeline crosses treaty lands. And last month, Veilleux sold her banjo and bought a plane ticket to Standing Rock, where she shared her map with tribal elders. She wants to use the maps to illustrate the social, cultural, and religious significance of water, and plans to work with tribes to create a series of maps that incorporate oral histories. She will be returning to Standing Rock next week, where she’ll take the completed maps and a report to the tribes for them to use.
Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @lyndseygilpin