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N.D. Pipeline Protester: 'It's About Our Rights As Native People'

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Young men chop wood at a family's camp circle in the protest camp.

In North Dakota, work has stopped on one section of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. Still, over the weekend protesters continued to stream into camps set up near the construction site.

One protest camp is about an hour's drive south of Bismarck. A prairie there is covered with tepees, tents and RVs. Flags from tribes around the country line the dirt road into the camp.

"We brought a ton of water, sleeping bags, mats to sleep on," says Jessie Weahkee of Albuquerque. She traveled 17 hours from Albuquerque to bring a moving truck full of donations for the hundreds of people who are now living at the camp.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe opposes the pipeline because the route crosses sacred sites and burial places. They're also concerned that if the pipeline ruptures it could pollute local drinking water.

Weahkee says her family faced a similar situation back home. They opposed plans to build a highway through Petroglyph National Monument, but they lost that battle. So she's here — hoping the Standing Rock Sioux can win this one.

For her, this protest is about more than opposing an oil pipeline. "It's about our rights as native people to this land. It's about our rights to worship. It's about our rights to be able to call a place home, and it's our rights to water," she says.

The company Energy Transfer Partners thought it had all the approval it needed to build the 1,172-mile-long, $3.78 billion pipeline.

Last Friday, a federal judge rejected a request from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to stop construction. But then the Obama administration stepped in and stopped construction on federal land. In a statement, the administration also asked the company to voluntarily stop construction within 20 miles of the section on federal land.

The tribe says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should have done a better job consulting with tribal leaders before approving construction. Now the Corps will go back and determine whether it should reconsider any of the conclusions the agency made that led to approving the pipeline.

The administration's decision was a win for the tribe and its supporters, but it's just a temporary halt to construction. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe wants a permanent halt.

Energy Transfer Partners did not respond to NPR's request for an interview. A group that supports the pipeline, Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, was critical of the Obama administration's move in a statement, calling it "deeply troubling" and saying it could have a chilling effect on infrastructure development in the U.S.

If the protests stall the pipeline's completion, the big losers could be oil drillers in North Dakota. Because of a production boom, they are producing more oil than the state can use and that pushes down the prices they get.

The Dakota Access pipeline would transport about 470,000 barrels of crude a day from western North Dakota down to central Illinois. Without the pipeline, drillers may have to discount the price they get for oil so it could be shipped by train.

And beyond that pipeline, supporters point out that shipping crude by pipeline is almost always safer than shipping it by train.

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