People at the front lines of the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline are calling it a 'death sentence'

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Thousands of protesters have been camping out for months in Cannon Ball, North Dakota to protest the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a proposed 1,172-mile oil project that would shuttle half a million barrels of North Dakota-produced oil to refining markets in Illinois.

The protesters — many of them Native American — hail from more than a hundred different tribes and have camped out on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation nestled along the border between North and South Dakota along the Missouri River.

They are here because the proposed pipeline would pass through North Dakota's Lake Oahe, a burial site sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux and a major source of drinking water for the community. "The main reason it's such a big deal here is that it's going to affect our water supply," Aries Yumul, the Assistant Principal of North Dakota's Todd County School District and a self-identified Water Protector with the Oceti Sakowin, the proper name for the people commonly known as the Sioux, told Business Insider.

Should the pipeline leak or burst, the impact could be devastating.

And leak pipelines do. Since 1995, more than 2,000 significant accidents involving oil and petroleum pipelines have occurred, adding up to roughly $3 billion in property damage, according to data obtained by the Associated Press from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. From 2013 to 2015, an average of 121 accidents happened every year.

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Celebrities hold protest for the North Dakota pipeline
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Celebrities hold protest for the North Dakota pipeline
Actor Shailene Woodley stands with Native Americans on stage during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Actor Susan Sarandon (R) smiles during an interview with author Greg Palast (C) and Mark Ruffalo (L) backstage at a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Actor Shailene Woodley closes her eyes as rain falls during a prayer circle at a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Actors Frances Fisher, (L), Jaden Smith, and Kendrick Sampson (R) raise their hands into the air as they stand with an attendee during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Actors Susan Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo, director Josh Fox, Frances Fisher and author Greg Palast pose for a photograph backstage during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
A woman stands with "No Ometeotl DAPL" drawn on her face during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Lehi Thundervoice Eagle Sanchez looks up during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Actor Susan Sarandon stands backstage at a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Actor Mark Ruffalo speaks during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Attendees stand together during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Actor Shailene Woodley holds hands as rain falls during a prayer circle at a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Actor Shailene Woodley hugs a woman wearing a #NoDAPL shirt on stage during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Joann Mae Spotted Bear speaks on stage with actor Frances Fisher during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
An attendee carries a flag in support of Native Americans during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
People attend a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Actor Mark Ruffalo (L) speaks backstage with Nalleli Cobo, 15, during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Ed Begley Jr. attends a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Actor Frances Fisher speaks on stage during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Actors Frances Fisher and Kendrick Sampson hug during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Attendees raise their fists into the air during a climate change rally in solidarity with protests of the pipeline in North Dakota at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
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In addition to thousands of activists, some celebrities have also joined protests in support of the Standing Rock Sioux. Actors Shailene Woodley, Susan Sarandon, and Rosario Dawson have also participated in nearby rallies and demonstrations. The project has been halted since last month, when the Obama administration blocked construction on federal land and asked the company behind the project, Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners LLP, to suspend work nearby.

Contaminated water is a massive health problem.

An in-depth 2010 report from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which looked at the effects of three major oil spills, found increased incidences of cancer and digestive problems in people who had either ingested the oil directly (in drinking water) or indirectly (through eating the meat of livestock exposed to the oil).

In addition, people who had used contaminated water for bathing or laundry appeared to experience a higher incidence of skin problems, ranging from mild rashes to severe and lasting eczema and malignant skin cancers.

With risks this high, most large-scale environmental projects require extensive legal review.

To build the pipeline, the Army Corps of Engineers, the group in charge of the project, must comply with several environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Passed in 1970, NEPA's basic policy is to ensure the government considers the potential environmental impacts of any federal project, like a new highway or airport, before building it.

The Standing Rock Sioux claim this review process, in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, was not done properly. In their lawsuit, which they filed in July against the Army Corps of Engineers, the group alleges the permitting process was rushed and undertaken largely without their input.

This is a big problem, because if the pipeline were to leak or burst, it would send oil deep into the Missouri River, the Standing Rock Sioux's single source of water — water that it relies on for everything from bathing to drinking. For that reason, the Standing Rock Sioux allege the Army Corps of Engineers could have violated not just one but two laws — NEPA, as well as the Clean Water Act. The 1972 Clean Water Act makes it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from single identifiable source — such as a pipe — into certain bodies of water without a permit.

"The Missouri River is the tribe's only source of water. If this leaks, it is going to spill into the river. So the tribe's legal stance — that they were not adequately consulted, that there are potential water issues here — their legal concerns are strong," Devashree Saha, a senior policy associate at Brookings Institution, told Business Insider.

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North Dakota pipeline protests
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North Dakota pipeline protests
Protesters stand on heavy machinery after halting work on the Energy Transfer Partners Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. September 6, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen
A modified highway sign reads 'No Pipeline' near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that is slated to cross the nearby Missouri River, September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Native Americans ride with raised fists to a sacred burial ground that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the oil pipeline slated to cross the nearby Missouri River, September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Protestors were attacked by dogs and sprayed with an eye and respiratory irritant yesterday when they arrived at the site to protest after learning of the bulldozing work. / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
People on horses are seen at the encampment September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that is slated to transport approximately 470,000 barrels of oil per day from the Bakken Oil Field in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois. Protestors were attacked by dogs and sprayed with an eye and respiratory irritant yesterday when they arrived at the site to protest after learning of the bulldozing work. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Phil Little Thunder Sr attends an evening gathering at an encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe (DAPL), near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on September 3, 2016. The Indian reservation in North Dakota is the site of the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years. Indigenous people from across the US are living in camps on the Standing Rock reservation as they protest the construction of the new oil pipeline which they fear will destroy their water supply. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Boys enjoy a later afternoon horseback ride at an encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe (DAPL), near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on September 3, 2016. The Indian reservation in North Dakota is the site of the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years. Indigenous people from across the US are living in camps on the Standing Rock reservation as they protest the construction of the new oil pipeline which they fear will destroy their water supply. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
The Missouri River is seen beyond an encampment September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that is slated to transport approximately 470,000 barrels of oil per day from the Bakken Oil Field in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois. Protestors were attacked by dogs and sprayed with an eye and respiratory irritant yesterday when they arrived at the site to protest after learning of the bulldozing work. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
People sign a teepee with words of support for protestors at an encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe (DAPL), near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on September 3, 2016. The Indian reservation in North Dakota is the site of the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years. Indigenous people from across the US are living in camps on the Standing Rock reservation as they protest the construction of the new oil pipeline which they fear will destroy their water supply. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Native Americans march to a burial ground sacred site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the oil pipeline that is slated to cross the Missouri River nearby, September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Protestors were attacked by dogs and sprayed with an eye and respiratory irritant yesterday when they arrived at the site to protest after learning of the bulldozing work. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Nantinki Young of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, the head cook supervising all the kitchens poses for a photograph at an encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe (DAPL), near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on September 3, 2016. The Indian reservation in North Dakota is the site of the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years. Indigenous people from across the US are living in camps on the Standing Rock reservation as they protest the construction of the new oil pipeline which they fear will destroy their water supply. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Evan Butcher of the Chippewa Tribe plays basketball with younger boys September 4, 2016 at the encampment near Cannon Ball, North Dakota where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that is slated to transport approximately 470,000 barrels of oil per day from the Bakken Oil Field in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo provided by LaDonna Allard, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, second from right, participates in an oil pipeline protest, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016 in Morton County, N.D. North Dakota authorities plan to pursue charges against Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein for spray-painting construction equipment at a Dakota Access Pipeline protest. Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said Tuesday that the charges would be for trespassing and vandalism. (LaDonna Allard via AP)
Jon Don Ilone Reed, an Army veteran and member of South Dakota's Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, poses for a photo at an oil pipeline protest near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in southern North Dakota, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. Reed said he fought in Iraq and is now fighting "fighting for our children and our water." (AP Photo/James MacPherson)
In this Aug. 26, 2016, photo, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II poses for a photo near Cannon Ball., N.D., on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation overlooking an encampment where Native Americans from across North America have gathered to join his tribe's growing protest against a $3.8 billion four-state oil pipeline. About 30 people, including Archambault himself, have been arrested in recent weeks for interfering with construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. (AP Photo/James MacPherson)
Joye Braun, an organizer of the Dakota Access oil pipeline opposition, poses for a photo at a protest near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in southern North Dakota on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. Braun has been at the protest site since April and has vowed to remain until the project is killed. (AP Photo/James MacPherson)
Wambli Johnson poses for photo at an oil pipeline protest near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in southern North Dakota on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. The 11-year-old donated $150 to protest organizers that she earned by selling homemade laundry soap at northern Arizona's Black Mesa, on the Navajo Nation. ( AP Photo/James MacPherson)
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The pipeline's original route was slated for much farther north, near the North Dakota capital of Bismarck. But as Bill McKibben writes in the New Yorker, officials re-routed it when people there raised concerns that it could put that community's water supply in jeopardy.

But now, instead of risking Bismarck, the new route could threaten the Standing Rock Sioux.

"Our aquifers and rivers are fed by this river," said Yumul. "If it were to get contaminated it would affect all of the tribal nations. The idea of that ... it would be a death sentence at this point."

NOW WATCH: Animated map shows where your bottled water actually comes from

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