New pipeline showdown brews in New Jersey

The Ramapough Lunaape tribe in the township of Mahwah, NJ, is protesting the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline that would carry fracked Bakken shale oil from Albany, NY, to the Bayway Refinery in Linden. The planned route crosses the New York-New Jersey Highlands region, which is the source of water for more than 4.5 million people in both states, according to the Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipeline. The pipeline would also cut through a portion of the Ramapo Valley Reservation, a Bergen County park that protects much of the Highlands watershed. As with the Standing Rock Sioux struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Lunaape fear that a potential leak would pollute critical waters and impact sacred sites.

Connecticut-based Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings announced the project three years ago, and its contractors are now surveying land for the route before application to state and federal authorities for the permits to begin construction. The company is plugging the pipeline as a safer alternative to the current shipping of millions of gallons of oil each week to New Jersey by train and barge along the Hudson River. However, the Bayway Refinery, now run by Phillips 66 and formerly by ExxonMobil and its forebear Standard Oil, has itself been the scene of oil spills totalling some 7 million gallons over the century of its operation, mostly due to pipeline ruptures. Phillips and Exxon are still in talks with the state of New Jersey over who is going to pay for the clean-up of heavily contaminated local lands and waters. (EcoWatch, Dec. 29; Bergen County Record, March 28, 2016; WNYC, March 18, 2015)

The Lunaape have put up protest signs on a camp in their 13-acre reservation in Mahwah. The signs stand beside teepees that were erected in solidarity with the Dakota Access struggle. Lunaape Chief Dwaine Perry is calling for others in New Jersey to join their fight. Dozens of local residents have been attending teach-ins at the encampment to hear their case against the Pilgrim Pipeline. "The community needs to stop looking at the Ramapoughs as the canary in the mine and get their helmets on and stand with us, because if that goes it doesn't matter what your home costs, you can’t drink oil," Chief Perry told reporters.

Back in March, some 20 local residents and activists crowded the offices of the Bergen County Executive to hand-deliver a petition with more than 1,000 signatures demanding that the county call a halt to surveying for the pipeline within the Ramapo Reservation.

But the town of Mahwah says the tribe needs permits for the protest camp, and has issued summonses for tribal leaders—even though town leaders agree that a pipeline running through the Ramapo Valley Reservation is unacceptable. "One leak will determine the fate of our community and the millions of people between here and the Newark basin," Mahwah Mayor William Laforet said. The summonses are to be addressed at a Jan. 26 municipal court hearing. (NBC New York, Dec. 26; Advance Media, March 29)

The Lunaape are already grappling with the toxic legacy of the Ford Motor plant that operated in Mahwah in the 1960s and '70s, where sludge-dumping resulted in the nearby Ringwood Superfund site, declared by the EPA in 1984. Chief Perry says the approximately 3,500 tribal members have higher rates of cancer, birth defects and other health problems from decades of contaminated water and soil.  (Bergen Record, April 19, 2014; Al Jazeera, March 21, 2014; Record, Sept. 30, 2013)

But unlike the federally recognized Standing Rock Sioux, the Ramapough Lunaape Nation is only recognized by New Jersey and New York. The federal government isn't bound by the same obligations to protect the territorial rights of non-recognized tribes, making the fight against the Pilgrim Pipeline more complicated than that against the Dakota Access project. The Ramapough Lunaape bid for federal recognition was rejected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1996—thanks in part to Donald Trump, who campaigned against the tribe to undercut potential competition to his casino in Atlantic City. (Grist, Dec. 27)

A Ramapough Lunaape blogger writes on the  Native American Netroots website: "At the time before the Indian Gaming laws were ratified, people like Donald Trump were afraid that any Native Tribe recognized here in New Jersey would have the right to instantly open a casino and take away all of Atlantic City's business. Trump started a negative campaign against any and all tribes here in NJ as fake and invalid."

This is a campaign Trump waged during that period against several Northeast tribes. Members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut, operators of the Foxwoods Casino, remain offended over congressional testimony in 1993 in which Trump said that the Pequots "don't look like Indians" to him. (AP, July 7; AP, July 5)