Opponents of the nearly 1,200 mile crude oil pipeline being built through four Midwest states say they’ve been able to halt the boring under the Mississippi River in Lee County, Iowa by blocking access to a gravel road. But the company behind the roughly $4 billion project said that's not the case.
One of those opponents, Alex Cohen of St. Louis, arrived in Lee County more than a month ago. He said a funeral procession was held through the county Sunday to mourn the “lives lost in the pursuit of big oil.”
The procession ended at a gravel road along Highway 61 near Montrose.
Cohen said the opponents of the pipeline determined the road led to a “dumping site” for by-product created by boring beneath the Mississippi River. So they took control of it.
“This is the only roadway [Dakota Access] can get in to dump this sludge. The bore machine has been off for 48 hours because we are holding this site. So we have effectively stopped the boring without even trying to mess with the fortress they have built around the bore machine,” said Cohen.
The group, known as “Mississippi Stand,” blocked access to the road by installing three levels of barricades. The first, a fence made of old tree branches, the second a run-down white trailer and the third a “lockdown barrel,” into which two people place their arms inside, making it difficult for them to be removed.
Chief Deputy Scott Bonar with the Lee County Sheriff's Office said the Iowa Department of Transportation determined that the protest is occurring on public property. He said as long as the group does not affect highway traffic, allows the owner of the land to access the site, and obeys all other laws, the blockade can continue.
Cohen said it’s the most successful campaign thus far.
“We have put the police and [Dakota Access] security in an interesting position that I don’t think they know how to handle,” said Cohen. “We are going on 48 hours here of this occupation and space defense. They showed up originally and tried to move the trailer, but we had someone locked onto the bottom of the trailer and we had someone standing on top of the trailer.”
Dakota Access is disputing the success of the group -- though without releasing much information.
A spokeswoman for the company said in an email Tuesday afternoon to Tri States Public Radio, “There has not been any shut down of our construction in that area.”
A follow up email from TSPR asking for a clarification of that statement and about the use of the site for byproduct disposal went unanswered.
The company also declined a recent request from TSPR for an interview regarding the status of the project, stating the work in Iowa is 64% complete and the pipeline should be operational by the end of 2016.
Cohen said his group knows it is running out of time to stop the pipeline, even with winter coming soon.
“It does become a challenge, but I think personal sacrifice is something we are all willing to risk in order to stop this pipeline,” said Cohen. “As long as they are working, winter, spring, fall or summer, we are going to be here and match them with peaceful resistance.”
Cohen said about 20 people are sleeping on public land along the highway to help defend the blockade. He said this pattern will continue.
“[Dakota Access] can find another site and if [it does], we will find it as well.”