The Dakota Access Pipeline protests were at their heart an issue over sovereignty of indigenous land and the failure of US courts, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Interior (DOI), the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), to protect the sovereign rights of the indigenous people of the Standing Rock reservation. Even though a spill could have had major adverse effects on the drinking water of the local tribe, the pipeline was granted an exception from review using multiple small construction site permits to bypass Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act regulation. Protests erupted in 2016 as a response to this failure of the usual checks and balances, the local indigenous community received a lot of support as the pipeline was widely seen as a threat to drinking water and destruction of Native American land the local population considers sacred.
The Sioux of Standing Rock filed a lawsuit and won in March 2020, with the federal judge ordered USACE to carry out a full environmental impact statement. Judge James Boasberg pointed out many serious flaws in the pipeline's planning and USACE’s previous analysis, pointing out various major problems with the pipelines leak-detection system, the operator’s terrible track record, and the USACE's use of unrealistic figures. But regardless of the bureaucratic failure the Standing Rock protests need to be remembered as an issue of sovereignty, and greater protections clearly need to be put in place to stop future infringements of this kind from occurring, it is not only wrong and illegal but massively historically and culturally insensitive also.