CANNON BALL, N.D. — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Sunday that it won't grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline in southern North Dakota, handing a victory to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its supporters, who argued the project would threaten a water source and cultural sites.
North Dakota's leaders criticized the decision, with Gov. Jack Dalrymple calling it a "serious mistake" that "prolongs the dangerous situation" of having several hundred protesters who are camped out on federal land during cold, wintry weather. U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer said it's a "very chilling signal" for the future of infrastructure in the United States.
The four-state, $3.8 billion project is largely complete except for the now-blocked segment underneath Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir. Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for civil works, said in a news release that her decision was based on the need to "explore alternate routes" for the pipeline's crossing.
"Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it's clear that there's more work to do," Darcy said. "The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing."
U.S. Secretary for the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement that the Corps' "thoughtful approach … ensures that there will be an in-depth evaluation of alternative routes for the pipeline and a closer look at potential impacts."
The decision averts a possible showdown Monday, when the Army Corps, which owns land on either side of the lake, plans to cut off access to the protesters' camp. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, worried about violence, had sent mediators to the area over the weekend.
The company constructing the pipeline, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, released a statement Sunday night slamming the decision as politically motivated and alleging that President Barack Obama's administration was determined to delay the matter until he leaves office in January.
"The White House's directive today to the Corps for further delay is just the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions by an administration which has abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency," the company said.
The victory for the Standing Rock Sioux and its allies could be short-lived. President-elect Donald Trump is a pipeline supporter, although it wasn't immediately clear what steps his administration would be able to take to reverse the Army Corps' latest decision or how quickly that could happen.
Of note, Kelcy Warren, chief executive for Energy Transfer Partners, has been a major contributor to the Republican Party and Trump's campaign. Trump, who owned a stake between $500,000 and $1 million in Energy Transfer Partners, has sold the shares, his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, said.
Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault didn't immediately respond to messages left seeking comment.
The federal government has ordered people to leave the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, encampment on Army Corps of Engineers' land by today. But demonstrators say they're prepared to stay, and authorities say they won't forcibly remove them.
Lynch said the Department of Justice will "continue to monitor the situation" and stands "ready to provide resources to help all those who can play a constructive role in easing tensions."
"The safety of everyone in the area — law enforcement officers, residents and protesters alike — continues to be our foremost concern," she added.
Earlier Sunday, an organizer with Veterans Stand for Standing Rock said tribal elders had asked the military veterans not to have confrontations with law enforcement officials, adding the group is there to help out those who have dug in against the project.
About 250 veterans gathered about a mile from the main camp for a meeting with organizer Wes Clark Jr., the son of former Democratic presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark. The group had said about 2,000 veterans were coming, but it wasn't clear how many actually arrived.
"We have been asked by the elders not to do direct action," Wes Clark Jr. said. He then talked about North Dakota authorities' decision to move away from a key bridge north of the encampment by 4 p.m. Sunday if demonstrators agree to certain conditions, saying the National Guard and law enforcement have armored vehicles and are armed.
"If we come forward, they will attack us," Clark said. Instead, he told the veterans, "If you see someone who needs help, help them out."
Veterans Stand for Standing Rock's GoFundMe.com page had raised more than $1 million of its $1.2 million goal by Sunday — money due to go toward food, transportation and supplies. Cars waiting to get into the camp Sunday afternoon were backed up for more than a half-mile.