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Pouné Saberi's Story with Standing Rock

Dr. Saberi’s Standing Rock Story, so far…

There are so many environmental fronts to fight that my head feels like it is on a permanent dreidel. My urge to not go down quietly, but kicking and screaming instead, did not start with election of Trump. It started way before that. It started when I read about a technology that was pumping endocrine disrupting chemicals into sources of drinking water, when the rest of the sane world was trying to figure out how to get them out. That technology was called high volume hydraulic fracturing, and it plagued the beautiful state of Pennsylvania starting in 2004, thanks to the dollar signs that a democratic governor called Ed Rendell saw in his eyes.

My rock bottom moments were more like three years ago when the CO2 in earth’s atmosphere hit 400 ppm, and scientists announced our atmosphere would never go below that amount in my lifetime. I also felt desperate when the best prospect of the UNFCC Conference of Parties slated to be held in Paris, France was promising to be another disaster like Copenhagen’s meeting was. That’s when I decided: “I am going to COP21.” I simply knew that I would have to show up and insert my voice, however tiny against the loud noise of the globe. I did go to Paris for COP21 in October 2015, and the rest is what I consider to be the highlight of my activist life.

I felt the urgency of a fighting front again three weeks ago, when I received a forwarded email from my cool doctor friend Wendy Ring ( It outlined what the medic and healer group of Standing Rock camp in Cannonball, ND was requesting. They were requesting volunteer health providers for the camp. I had toyed with the idea of going, not as a doctor, but in the context of the Thanksgiving dinner that Judy Wicks had organized. But the email from the medic/healer council put me in another one of those moments where I felt as if this is live or die.

Those of you who have been involved in the fossil fuel transportation resistance know well why pipelines are the arteries that keep the oil and gas monster alive. The United States has been producing oil and gas on par with many of the historically oil and gas producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar, etc. Trust me, this is nothing to be proud or happy about. When Iran, my country of origin, hit oil literally the rapid cultural change that came with that pouring of money had a domino effect that lead to much of the political strife and misery that ensued. In all those other countries mentioned above, the unmitigated production of oil and gas has only driven a wedge between the uber-wealthy and those in deep poverty. I challenge anyone to name a country that has benefited from having a get-rich-quick oil and gas industry. Venezuela anyone? Better yet Libya anyone? At any rate, once the U.S. had saturated its own domestic market for new shale oil and gas, it had to either figure out how to export abroad or create a larger market here at home (see how Philly’s SEPTA board sold out to the shale gas industry by approving a gas plant in the most disadvantaged neighborhood) or figure out how to export abroad.

The need to get the oil and gas to coastal ports for foreign markets is partly what drives this pipeline frenzy. The map of every proposed pipeline in the U.S. ( map) looks like track marks on an unfortunate heroine user, which is the United States. (Did you know that deaths from heroine overdose are at an all time high in the U.S.?) And don’t even think that just because one pipeline permit, project or plan is defeated that it’s over. No. These pipelines are like the ten-headed hydra. No matter which head you cut off, Keystone Pipeline, two more grow in its place, Dakota Access Pipeline. How many times can New Jersey revive the plans for putting a gas pipeline through the Pinelands? Which part of the fact that pipelines devastate any environment they pass through needs to be explained again? They destroy the habitats of the living creatures, including the humans whose property they seize by eminent domain. They pollute wetlands, never to return to their pristine states. They leak gobs and gobs of oil, they rupture, blow up, catch on fire and kill. Yup, workers die routinely from pipeline ruptures. All those empty promises about safety of pipelines as if on cue end up being lies. In the past two weeks, three different pipeline leaks have occurred just in North Dakota, one of them involving a failed monitoring system that the industry and their bought-out state government said could not happen. (There were 292 pipeline spills in North Dakota alone, in 2012-2013!) With such an unreliable safety record for the industry, Energy Transfer Partners wants to drill below Lake Oahe, an enormous reservoir which is part of the Missouri River, the only drinking water source for the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The Missouri River also supplies the Cheyenne River Sioux of South Dakota with almost all of their drinking water, making the Cheyenne River band a formal party to the Standing Rock band’s lawsuit against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which threatens drinking water for millions more downstream. All seven bands of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people, known historically as the “great Sioux nation,” have united to stop DAPL. Together they are called the “Oceti Sakowin” in their own Lakota language – meaning the “Seven Council Fires,” a confederacy not unlike the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy upon which the whole concept of U.S. democracy was partially based. At Oceti Sakowin Camp, the Lakota have come together for the first time in 130 years; and over 200 indigenous nations and non-Native allies have joined, for the first time in history.

The Dakota Access Pipeline would transmit oil that has been extracted from Bakken Shale by the extreme method of hydro-fracking. This is the same Bakken shale whose impact for North Dakota has brought high rates of suicide among the workers. This is where I first received reports of health impacts from a woman names Jacki Shilke, whose farm was surrounded by oil wells and said her animals were bleeding from their mucus membranes. Their farm was in a sparsely populated region, and she said her neighbor, who was man in his thirties, developed sudden multi-organ failure. He eventually ended up in a coma in a Williston, ND hospital and died. She was thinking of leaving but could not bring herself to leave her animals. I could not help her. The failure to be able to do something for her, her animals, and the mysterious death of her young neighbor never left me. (The complicit act of the medical institutions to ignore at best, and to hide at worst, the environmental facts relevant to impacted people under the guise of remaining “apolitical” makes me crazy.)

My friend Rebecca Roter says not having a voice to protest environmental justice issues does not just happen when one is disenfranchised by gender, age or race. It can also happen when the receiving witnesses to the degradation are few and live far from each other, like many rural areas of Pennsylvania, such as Susquehanna County, where compressor stations are erected without any accountability for the air pollutants they emit.

So, I got the forwarded email from the medic/healer group, I remembered Jacki Shulki of North Dakota and the idea of going to Standing Rock started rooting in my brain. I knew I was going when I watched the video of Didi Banerji that Iris Marie Bloom forwarded to me. (You can find the excellent blogs about Standing Rock at ). Didi Banerji is a medic, her family is from Lakota Nation, and she volunteered at Standing Rock. In the interview, what she says is mind blowing. She says to the military personnel who are pushing the Water Protectors back: “I came here as human being, what did you come here as?” Yup, that’s when I knew silence equaled death.

As the name suggests, the medic/healer council is not run like a department in a hospital by a doctor. While many amazing doctors dedicate their time and effort and expertise to organize rotating shifts, supply lists, outreach efforts etc, the culture is set by the tribal healers. The tents may be coordinated by the efforts of nurses who are experienced and wonderful but even in reading the language of the Facebook page the difference in paradigm is clear. It took me a little while to digest what was most needed. For example, experience in disaster management and trauma care was listed, as was the request to dedicate at least a week’s time to volunteer.

As is often the case for me, at times the hardest part of my activist decisions is when I have to tell my family, like my mom. I have to have primed them with some egregious fact about the event (“can you believe they desecrated ancestral burial grounds and now are attacking unarmed people?”). Then I keep a really, calm voice (“so about my plans for next weekend…”), and lastly downplay any risk (“I’m not going to protest. I’m going to help with the medical team way behind the scenes.”) The sell was tricky because during the several days I had been contemplating the trip, figuring out the details of transportation, lodging etc, the news of the eviction notice came. The camp was issued a notice by Army Corps of Engineers to evict the camp within two days of the veteran allies arriving. While in some ways, this highlighted the constantly varying political landscape of DAPL and the physical landscape of the camp, it made me more resolved to go.

The medic/healer group has a wish list. On that list are things such as solar panels and really just money to spend on things like hiring four-wheel drive vehicles for transporting injured or ill patients to hospital facilities specially as the cold weather set in. The folks I knew who had gone to Standing Rock had not been there when the winter started for real. But by the time I started planning, it was clear that the sub-arctic temperatures that were becoming the norm were no joke. I kept tracking the weather with incredulity as minus signs started appearing next to the temperatures. People started giving all kinds of advice. In fact, I spent a good part of my birthday gathering a list of what I needed to survive the freeze and the snow.

One issue that I had been struggling with was where to sleep. Many people referenced the Prairie Knights casino hotel that is some miles away from the camp but owned by the tribe where there are beds and hot water. The fabulous doctor friend I had been in touch with, Elizabeth Friedman, had stayed in a tipi and her experience emboldened me to expand my horizons to include sleeping in a sleeping bag. I know it comes as a surprise to some people when camping is not even in my vocabulary, but there it is. I don’t camp. I don’t know how to camp. I don’t even want to camp. But in this case I did accept the fact that I may have to see camping in my future, not just camping, but winter camping. The reason the casino hotel was booked was because five days before I was planning to arrive there, U.S. military veterans had traveled there as a large group to stand in solidarity with the Water Protectors. I work with veterans and I must admit that the day they arrived on the camp I felt so proud, like my own family had gone there. It also meant I would have to stay in a tipi (actually tipis are big and luxurious compared to little nylon camping tents, and can be warmed by a woodstove). If Elizabeth had stayed in a tipi, by God so will I. So, I made my extensive list, and next day I headed out to I Goldberg in center city (such friendly knowledgeable staff). I spent a good part of my Sunday exploring every single item in that store. Like a crash course in wilderness survival. Gloves that have zippers for hand warmers, snow boots that are half size too big so that I can wear my thermal socks, hunting hats made out from fake fur (I freaked out when I wore one that had rabbit fur. Boy, was it warm though.) I also bought a solar charger because I have been pretty curious to see how effective they are. I was also worried about being cut off from my digital universe because I had heard the only place one can reception there is on Facebook Hill. I don’t have a Facebook account but I had fully planned to activate a group of my friends and family who do and made them all “like” the Standing Rock page. I was planning to send them news and writings as emails and ask them to post, tweet or disseminate however they saw appropriate.

I had a quick tutoring session from Tammy Murphy, the PSR medical outreach coordinator, who explained how everything is about having the right gear. I called REI and a really helpful customer service guy helped with calculating the numbers that are assigned to sleeping bags and pads to mark them appropriate for corresponding weather temperatures. Then it turned out a coworker had lived and camped in Alaska and brought me everything I could possibly wish for, for surviving temperatures of 20 degrees below. She also brought flannel lined pants that are windproof except that she is at least five inches taller than I am which was fine because all I had to do was find suspenders to hold the pants up.

After I spent a nice shopping spree at I Goldberg I got home and found out that Army Corps of Engineers has communicated to the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River leaders that they will not give the final permission (“easement”) for DAPL to drill under Lake Oahe. They will conduct an environmental impact assessment. I sat incredulously staring at the news on my computer while my inbox filled up with environmental non-profit emails with headlines, like, “We Won!” and “DAPL is Dead!” in one breath and click this donate button in the next breath (as a board president of a non-profit I feel like I can say this since I belong to the said group). But then two other pieces of news came through. One was that some indigenous leaders were encouraging people to pack up and go home, partly due to this development in permit denial and party due to the considerable cold weather. The other was that Energy Transfer Partners had commented that they do not care what ACE says and they will go ahead with the drilling. It seemed as if there was a deadline of January 1, 2017 when their contracts with their financial support would expire. And it was conceivable that some of the financers would back out if not completed by that deadline.

Since the breaking of the news about denying DAPL permit, what ensued were five days of political and weather news that felt like an emotional roller coaster. While the organizers of the health care team confirmed that medical providers were still needed, news was coming in that a blizzard had closed the Bismarck airport down. Wendy Ring had driven someone to Bismarck to get an x-ray and ended up getting stuck when the road to the camp closed. Some of the Camp residents had to take refuge in shelters, the stadium of the casino hotel was reportedly filled with people sleeping in their sleeping bags. The medical tent was treating hypothermia and related medical conditions that can result from cold exposure. I felt prepared for the cold but knew better than to think that we can beat nature. At the end, we examined our resource allocation. Is it better to spend the money raised or risk having to spend it on staying in a hotel during our lay over or in Bismarck when the anticipated snow storm cancels our flights. Is it better to go now when there are volunteers still there, or at a time when there are fewer volunteers?

The discussion one has with oneself can sometimes be hard. That’s when I have to check whether my ego is seeking heroism at the expense of greater good. And I finally admitted to myself that maybe. But just the teensiest bit.

Emails and phone calls later, it was confirmed that the funds raised would be put to better use than our volunteer work. So, we pulled the plug and cancelled everything when we would have been checking in for our flights. In 24 hours, a coalition of grassroots organizations in Sacred Stone camp put out a press release: “As we reflect on the decision by the US Army Corps to suspend the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) river crossing easement and conduct a limited Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the resistance camps at Standing Rock are making plans for the next phase of this movement. Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II has asked people to return home once the weather clears, and many will do so. Others will stay to hold the space, advance our reclamation of unceded territory affirmed in the 1851 Treaty of Ft. Laramie, and continue to build community around the protection of our sacred waters. They will also keep a close eye on the company, which has drilled right up to the last inch it can, and remains poised and ready to finish the project. We have come together across the lines that divide us, and gathered in solidarity to demand an end to 500 years of oppression of Indigenous peoples - to demand respect for Mother Earth and clean water for all our relatives and future generations…. We must adapt to shifting circumstances without pause. December is an international month of action focused on the 17 banks that are profiting off investments in the Dakota Access pipeline. This fight is not over, not even close. It is unclear what will happen with the river crossing. Now more than ever, we ask that you stand with us as we continue to demand justice.”

I was sad not to have been physically part of this enormous movement. But I was glad that I forced humility on myself to recognize when something is not about a person.

That week and the week that followed saw two pipeline leaks in that same state of North Dakota using the exact technology that was touted to be safe (links). There were reports of drones of ETP working near the bridge. Internal released recordings of ETP showed utter disregard for the decision by ACE (link). And it was inconceivable that ETP would risk getting a violation. Who would purse enforcing it? National Guard that is under the control of the oil happy governor Dalrymple? Or ACE that would soon be under a different administration. But perhaps what was most shocking for me to find out was what I had missed right here at home. Back in 2015 one year before Standing Rock resistance formally took shape this press release went out: “Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. (NYSE:ETP) announced today that Sunoco Logistics Partners, L.P. (NYSE:SXL) is taking a 40 percent stake in Bakken Holdings Company, LLC (Bakken Holdings). Bakken Holdings will hold a 75 percent interest in Dakota Access, LLC, which is developing the Dakota Access Pipeline Project (DAPL), and a 75 percent interest in Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company, LLC, which is developing the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline Project (ETCOP). As a result of the transaction, SXL will own 40 percent of

Bakken Holdings, while ETP will retain the remaining 60 percent ownership.” (link) Sunoco Logistics is headquartered in Philadelphia. In 2012, Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) was formed, owned by The Carlyle Group and Sunoco Inc., which is a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. family of companies.

It seems as if we in Philadelphia are much more closely handcuffed to the business dealings of DAPL than at least I personally realized. The Bakken crude oil is transported via CSX trains through many neighborhoods of Philadelphia to PES for refinement. The very source of what has scarred the earth in the state of North Dakota, leaked poison into their creeks and if allowed to continue would have defiled the sacred headwaters of a population historically and categorically beleaguered is what would have passed right by us as we go about our days and nights. And we would have been none the wiser for it. Such is the insidiousness of corporate fossil fuel industry.

The sleeping bags and the thermal socks and the various other winter gear that I prepared to take with me are still sitting in middle of my living room. Even though I didn’t go, this was not all in vain. I gained tremendous knowledge and pledged my solidarity to the wonderful health care providers who dedicate their time to be there and to guide my efforts. To echo the wise words of the Stand Rock Coalition, it is time to divest.

To “defund DAPL,” please go to the YES! Magazine story, “How to contact the 3178 banks funding DAPL,” which lists all the banks; you can close your own bank account and transfer your funds to a Credit Union or local savings bank which does not fund DAPL or other fossil fuel infrastructure projects. You can read more at or read the YES! Magazine article, “I couldn’t go to Standing Rock, so I closed my bank account instead.”

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