A Tale of Two Rivers: One Threatened by a Pipeline Spill, the Other Protected with Personhood

The Missouri River faces environmental threats from possible breaks in the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Meanwhile, in Aotearoa (the Maori term for New Zealand) the Whanganui River, the country’s largest river, now has the legal protection of personhood status. It requires review of development projects keeping the river’s best interests in mind.

DAPL’s potential threats to the Missouri River remain shrouded in secrets. The federal government has rejected a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request which sought more details. The government’s fear seems to be that someone with access to its analysis could use it to sabotage the pipeline. Yet by implication, it also means that the government acknowledges that if the pipeline fails on its own, significant environmental damage will happen.

Keep reading.The news site Censored News published an item Tuesday headlined: U.S. Army Corps says it would endanger lives to reveal the truth of the risks of Dakota Access pipeline oil spills in Lake Oahe.

It references efforts by Michael Morisy of Muck Rock News to get more details on the DAPL environmental assessment done by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers during the Obama Administration. Recall that Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army issued a four-page memo that recounted the regulatory history of DAPL. It included the following:

Because of security concerns and sensitivities, several documents supporting the Environmental Assessment were marked confidential and were withheld from the public or representatives and experts from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. …

(For more details on the secret documents, see our Feb. 23 blog: Secret DAPL Analysis Withheld from Tribes: Government Memo Spotlights Flawed Process, or MinnPost’s March 31 article: Suppressed memo shows many failings in Corps review of Dakota Access plan.)

The Corp of Engineers put the brakes on DAPL in the waning days of the Obama administration. That changed in a hurry when the Trump administration took office and greenlighted DAPL.

Enter Muck Rock News and its FOIA for more information on the government’s secret  risk assessment. The Censored News article reprints the government lawyer’s response. It reads in part:

I am Withholding the requested document in its entirety pursuant to [federal law] which protects records compiled for law enforcement purposes and if released could be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of an individual. The referenced document contains information related to sensitive infrastructure that if misused could endanger people’s lives and property.

It is an opaque process, but clearly there are potential threats to the river. Now consider what they did in New Zealand.

The news site TruthOut published a story Monday headlined: When Rivers Hold Legal Rights, which says:

The growing global movement for Rights of Nature — or the Rights of Mother Earth as some cultures prefer — seeks to define legal rights for ecosystems to exist, flourish, and regenerate their natural capacities.

One powerful example cited is Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill, passed in March in New Zealand.

[T]he river became the first water system in the world to be recognized as a rights-bearing entity, holding legal “personhood” status. One implication of the agreement is that the Whanganui River is no longer property of New Zealand’s Crown government — the river now owns itself.

In 2014, a similar bill protected a forest region in New Zealand, recognizing its personhood. Future decisions about the forest and the river (such as development proposals) will be made by a two-person body, one appointed by the Crown, the other by the Māori.

“Those appointed to act on [the Whanganui River’s] behalf will have legal obligation to uphold and protect the river’s values and health and wellbeing,” …

I don’t want to endorse the idea of corporate personhood, but if a corporation can be a person under U.S. law, certainly a river can, too.

I recommend reading the whole article. We have something to learn from the New Zealand example.

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