Native Americans are suing fracking and mining firms over land rights in a case that could determine the future of American energy
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At least 10 native American nations have joined together to hold the world’s largest oil company, ExxonMobil, accountable for actions they say violated their “sacred water”.
The lawsuit alleges that the Houston-based oil giant has contaminated the water of native American nations, including the tribe that represents Kansas and Colorado. The tribe claims that Exxon has claimed the rights of non-Indians on Indian land to drill for oil and gas in violation of the federal Indian Civil Rights Act, according to Cia Purvis and Tjalsini Adams, a lawyer for the local attorneys on the case.
The suit is one of a series of recent actions by local tribes who are concerned about the ongoing pressure to drill on their lands. In New Mexico, the Taos Pueblo filed a similar suit against Exxon in 2012 and has also filed suits against Duke Energy in North Carolina and Chevron in California.
“We just want to make sure that people understand that we are not against oil and gas, that’s not what we are fighting for,” said Patricia Luetmer, chair of the tribes’ Standing Rock Sioux tribe, whose members are also suing Exxon, Cia Purvis, another lawyer on the case, said. “The concern has always been about our land.”
Sabine Spentrude, who represents the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota in the case, said the tribes have been fighting for a more transparent industry to protect the tribes’ land. She added that she hopes the case will halt the production of coal seam gas on Indian land and the transportation of oil to Indian lands.
The reasons behind the decisions are unclear but some officials have pushed to allow coal extraction on native land. The move has fueled environmental activists, who say that the extraction of coal can put native lands at risk.
Another lawsuit claims that Exxon knowingly disposed of hazardous chemicals that lead to cancer and affect human reproduction on native lands. The case states that the waste disposal involves tar sands and organic waste from oil extraction. The case was filed in 2013 and prompted Exxon to pay a $2.6m fine.
The new case claims Exxon has provided “shoddy, poorly documented accounting” about its drilling activities, the suit claims. The tribes assert that under the Title VIII water-rights Indian law, it is Exxon’s responsibility to guarantee the property rights of non-Indian tribes on their land, Purvis said. They claim that despite the law, Exxon has allowed themselves to be recognized as the owner of lands that are owned by the tribes.
The South Dakota Indian Health Board has reported that there are more than 100 Native American reservations in the US in the “zone” where large-scale petroleum activity has been given the go-ahead. More than 200 members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe served a subpoena to the EPA in November on behalf of the tribes, where more than 200 companies – mostly energy firms – are operating in the area.
Native Americans are pursuing claims against American energy firms over their alleged violation of Native American water rights. Photograph: Men on Journeys
In November, another lawsuit was filed against American oil and gas companies seeking to protect the water of five First Nations including the Hopi, Ponca, Nez Perce, Nakota and Sioux Nation. Representatives of the band were joined in the lawsuit by international environmental and indigenous rights organizations.
The San Francisco-based Tides foundation offered $50m for tribes to sue companies that operate in oil and gas regions they claim pollute their waters. The companies will be required to cooperate with the tribes and the legal team that will bring the case, and will be liable for all costs associated with the litigation, including attorney fees. The funding would also be used to help tribes develop more sustainable economies to stay within their country, increase their water and environmental protection programs and to provide training and employment.
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Pitcher’s says he’s hopeful the lawsuit will be successful.
“If the court doesn’t rule the way we want it to, hopefully the next administration, the people that are elected in the country, will pay attention to the issue.”