Updated 04/15/20, 6:10 p.m.
A federal judge Thursday will consider tribes’ request to put a hold on oil pipeline construction in northeastern Montana in light of coronavirus concerns.
Tribal members gathered this week in Phillips County to protest the ongoing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Around 10 tribal members of the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes of Montana, along with several representatives of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and Blackfeet Nation, rallied this week. They wore face coverings as they lined up in Phillips County to protest developer TC Energy’s crude oil pipeline, which began construction earlier in April.
Angeline Cheek, of the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes, helped organize the rally. She says not only would the pipeline pose a threat to the water quality and the environment in the region, but the influx of workers could also introduce the novel coronavirus into an area she says is medically underprepared and undersupplied.
“You know, we don’t have much in our area, and why put our people risk when these people are coming from all over?” Cheek said.
TC Energy says it’s working with local health officials and put protocols in place, including a 14-day quarantine, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Fort Belknap Indian community in Montana and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota are part of an ongoing lawsuit against TC Energy and the federal government that says the pipeline violates historic land treaties.
The tribes requested a restraining order on construction. A federal judge has scheduled a hearing on the case for Apr. 16.
The tribe's attorney, Matthew Campbell, says the United States has an obligation to uphold those treaties and protect the tribes from harm.
“And a crude oil pipeline through their lands is certainly something that deserves their protection, especially now given the pandemic and the increase of the employees that will be moving into these areas near these tribal communities," Campbell said.
In a statement, TC Energy says it awaits the judge’s ruling.
Federal Judge Brian Morris ruled on a related case Wednesday canceling a key water-crossing permit for the pipeline.
Environmental advocacy group Northern Plains Resource Council last year argued the United States Army Corps of Engineers neglected to fully analyze potential effects on endangered species when it granted a water permit called Nationwide Permit 12.
Attorneys say the ruling doesn’t bar TC Energy from moving forward with construction. However, the company will need to re-apply for the permit for future construction.