BISMARCK, N.D. — A judge has combined lawsuits filed by four Sioux tribes over the Dakota Access pipeline, streamlining the drawn-out legal battle over the $3.8 billion project to move North Dakota oil to a distribution point in Illinois.
Meanwhile, a federal appeals court could decide this weekend on a tribal request to stop oil from flowing through the pipeline next week.
The neighboring Standing Rock and Cheyenne River tribes teamed up last summer in the main lawsuit against Texas-based pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that granted pipeline permits at more than 200 water crossings, including the Missouri River. The Yankton Sioux also sued last summer, and the Oglala Sioux filed its own lawsuit last month.
The four Dakotas tribes make essentially the same claims: The pipeline threatens cultural sites and the Missouri, from which they get water for drinking and religious practices.
"Consolidating the cases would conserve judicial resources, allow the parties to save time and expense, and enable the court and parties to schedule matters more efficiently," Corps attorneys said in asking U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington, D.C., to lump the cases together.
None of the tribes or ETP objected to the move, and Boasberg granted the request Thursday.
The legal battle lingers even as ETP prepares to launch pipeline operations. Crews are wrapping up final pipe work under Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir in North Dakota, and the company has said oil could flow as early as Monday.
Cheyenne River attorney Nicole Ducheneaux asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to issue by Monday an "emergency" prohibition of any oil flow, until it resolves an appeal of Boasberg's recent decision to not stop final construction. Boasberg also rejected a separate tribal request to stop oil from flowing.
The tribes' appeal rests on the religion argument. Boasberg has said he doesn't think the tribes have a strong case on appeal. He also said ETP would be "substantially harmed" by a delay in pipeline operations.
The appeals court will make a decision on the emergency request sometime after Friday evening, the deadline it set for attorneys to submit written arguments.
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