Standing Rock’s message could save America

By James Mazarakis

(Jong Man Kim/ Daily Collegian)
(Jong Man Kim/ Daily Collegian)

“Water is life” is the catchphrase that has been written on signs and spoken by protesters across the country in support of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota. Many people hear this phrase and often agree, but still many of us take it for granted. Even in drought, the students at the University of Massachusetts have filtered water dispensers throughout campus and relative shower freedom, albeit a few minor restrictions.

But the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and the ongoing investigation of non-potable water in Indiana shows that even our own privileged country is not in control of its water infrastructure. Oil spills wreak havoc on water supplies in states where drilling is prevalent. And as if all this weren’t bad enough, climate change is making weather more erratic and water sparser, which puts our notorious corn industry at risk. Case in point: the recent drought in California triggered the death of 102 million trees and is “showing no signs of slowing” according to the United States Department of Agriculture and Huffington Post. America is not protecting its water.

It may seem daunting to take on such a challenging and complicated issue, but the political showdown at Standing Rock shows how water brings together the most important issues of our time. From money in politics to race relations to the economy and the environment, it all stands together. In protecting water, we are really protecting America.

Fighting for clean water inevitably leads to resolving race relations. Both Standing Rock and Flint represent lower-income minorities that suffered due to a lack of effort and oversight by a mostly-white government. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was originally planned to go through Bismarck, North Dakota, a predominantly white area, but was rejected as a “potential threat” to the city’s water supply, according to the Bismarck Tribune.

Yet despite acknowledging this risk to Bismarck, DAPL still crosses the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, which is a source of drinking water for Standing Rock. Not only does this move appear to be favoritism but it is also a null argument. The Missouri River provides drinking water to 2.5 million Americans according to the environmental group Environment Missouri. Standing Rock understands that the contamination of any water supply puts everyone at risk; after all, water is constantly on the move.

Pipelines’ risk to drinking water is also very clear. Over the course of 20 years, over 9,000 pipeline accidents have led to a total of 548 deaths, 2,576 injuries and over $8.5 billion in “financial damages,” according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. This does not include “less significant” incidents and it does not attempt to measure the environmental damage.

In September, serendipitously in the early phases of media coverage for Standing Rock, 250,000 gallons of oil leaked into a body of water in Shelby County, Alabama, causing a state of emergency and a rise in gas prices. A month later, the Colonial Pipeline “ruptured and exploded,” killing one person and injuring four others.

It may not be enough for the pipeline to get off of Sioux Tribe land. Oil and chemical spills, as well as the expansion of pesticide use, distributes these harmful substances into the wild and often get absorbed by crops we consume, let alone our drinking water. If companies like Colonial and Dakota Access do not provide proof that preventing leaks, explosions and water contamination is a priority, why are they in business? Reckless oil practices have killed Americans citizens and, on top of this, taxpayers will have to carry the burden of cleaning up land and rivers, many of which will never fully be rid of crude oil.

Yet the state protects these companies, even as far as deploying special militarized police forces to quell what are meaningful protests. Their lobbying has paid off in thousands of free passes at the expense of American lives and taxpayer money.

Racial relations, big money and environmental protection are all bound together by the protection of water. Their recent victory in halting the pipeline is only a first step, but the Standing Rock tribe’s rhetoric and conduct should be model behavior for activists across the country. If water can be a uniting force for the people, perhaps fighting for it will have lasting consequences for decades to come.

James Mazarakis is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].