By Valerie Volcovici and Terray Sylvester
WASHINGTON/CANNON BALL, N.D. (Reuters) - Activists protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline project expressed alarm on Wednesday after federal lawmakers from the state said the final permit had been granted for the project - a statement later contradicted by the Army, which issues such permits.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said on Wednesday it has started a review for the permit. But activists in North Dakota expressed anger over two lawmakers saying late on Tuesday that the final right-of-way for the pipeline had already been approved.
The Army Corps of Engineers, on Wednesday, said the easement had not been granted. "The Assistant Secretary for the Army Civil Works will make a decision on the pipeline once a full review and analysis is completed in accordance with the directive," it said in a statement.
Jade Begay, spokeswoman for the Indigenous Environmental Network, a nonprofit group and one of the primary groups protesting the line, said: “People (in protest camps) are watching pretty closely. People are in a reactionary place and it is dangerous for politicians to put out these unfounded statements."
Energy Transfer Partners LP's Dakota Access pipeline stretches for 1,170 miles (1,885 km) from North Dakota's oil-producing Bakken region to Patoka, Illinois. It still needs a required permit to tunnel under Lake Oahe, a reservoir that is part of the Missouri River. The reservoir is the water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, whose land in Cannon Ball is adjacent to the line's route.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe, along with other Native American groups and environmentalists, argue that the $3.8 billion project would damage sacred lands and that any leaks could pollute the water. Proponents believe the pipeline is necessary to transport U.S. oil safely and that it would create jobs.
On Tuesday, U.S. Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota said in a statement that Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer had told him and Vice President Mike Pence that Speer directed the Corps to proceed with the easement. U.S. Representative Kevin Cramer also said he had been informed of the directive.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe had successfully won delays from the Obama administration for further environmental review, but last week President Donald Trump signed an executive order telling the Corps of Engineers to expedite review of the project. It is unclear how long that review will take.
Lewis Grassrope, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said the Trump administration and state lawmakers were trying to inspire fear and anger through premature statements.
"They want us to react and go do actions, which will give them the right to say, 'OK, they're not peaceful. So let's put in this pipeline,'" he said.
Several groups opposing the project, including the Standing Rock Sioux, said they would fight the granting of an easement in court, as an environmental study still needs to be completed.
A spokesman for Hoeven, Don Canton, said Speer told the senator that the Army Corps was doing its due diligence in acting on Trump's memo from last week, and that Hoeven had not discussed the environmental study with the Corps.
In a statement posted on their website, the Sacred Stone camp - the original camp, established last April - asked protesters to return to their encampment so that they could stage another demonstration. That camp is located on Sioux land in Sioux County; it is not the site of the bulk of protests, which are in Morton County on federal land.
The main protest camp, known as Oceti Sakowin, had been the staging ground for ongoing protests, some of which led to violent clashes between law enforcement and activists.
That camp is in the process of being broken down, because it is located on a flood plain, and when it floods, any remaining structures could foul the river. Protesters, however, have started to set up another camp on the other side of Highway 1806, which is on private property.
Rob Keller, a spokesman for state law enforcement, said police have opened a lane on the Backwater Bridge in case they need to go into the camp. He said protesters are being told they cannot be on that land, which is owned by Dakota Access.
Law enforcement has begun removing barricades on the bridge, the site of a large protest last year where activists burned vehicles. The bridge, part of Highway 1806, has been closed since October.
Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II last week said he has requested a meeting with Trump, but has not received a response. Standing Rock representatives were not available for comment on Wednesday, but Begay said that "Trump, when he made these executive orders, did not have any consultation with tribal leaders."
For graphics on Dakota Access pipeline route click on: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/USA-PIPELINE-NATIVEAMERICANS/010021PV463/index.html
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Ernest Scheyder in Houston; Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Dan Grebler and Matthew Lewis)