CANNON BALL, N.D. -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Sunday that it won't grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline in southern North Dakota, handing a victory to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its supporters, who argued the project would threaten the tribe's water source and cultural sites.
North Dakota's leaders criticized the decision, with Gov. Jack Dalrymple calling it a "serious mistake" that "prolongs the dangerous situation" of having several hundred protesters who are camped out on federal land during cold, wintry weather. U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer said it's a "very chilling signal" for the future of infrastructure in the United States.
The four-state, $3.8 billion project is largely complete except for the now-blocked segment underneath Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir. Assistant Secretary for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy said in a news release that her decision was based on the need to "explore alternate routes" for the pipeline's crossing. Her full decision doesn't rule out that it could cross under the reservoir or north of Bismarck.
"Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it's clear that there's more work to do," Darcy said. "The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing."
The company constructing the pipeline, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, had said it was unwilling to reroute the project. It had no immediate comment Sunday.
The decision came a day before the government's deadline for the several hundred people at the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, encampment to leave the federal land. But demonstrators say they're prepared to stay, and authorities say they won't forcibly remove them.
As the news spread Sunday, cheers and cheers and chants of "mni wichoni" -- "water is life" in Lakota Sioux -- broke out among the protesters. Some in the crowd banged drums. Miles Allard, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux, said he was pleased but remained cautious, saying, "We don't know what Trump is going to do."
"The whole world is watching," Allard added. "I'm telling all our people to stand up and not to leave until this is over."
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Sunday that the Department of Justice will "continue to monitor the situation" and stands "ready to provide resources to help all those who can play a constructive role in easing tensions."
"The safety of everyone in the area - law enforcement officers, residents and protesters alike - continues to be our foremost concern," she added.
Carla Youngbear of the Meskwaki Potawatomi tribe made her third trip from central Kansas to be at the protest site.
"I have grandchildren, and I'm going to have great grandchildren," she said. "They need water. Water is why I'm here."
Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault didn't immediately respond to messages left seeking comment.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, whose department has done much of the policing for the protests, said that "local law enforcement does not have an opinion" on the easement and that his department will continue to "enforce the law."
U.S. Secretary for the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement that the Corps' "thoughtful approach ... ensures that there will be an in-depth evaluation of alternative routes for the pipeline and a closer look at potential impacts."
Earlier Sunday, an organizer with Veterans Stand for Standing Rock said tribal elders had asked the military veterans not to have confrontations with law enforcement officials, adding the group is there to help out those who've dug in against the project.
About 250 veterans gathered about a mile from the main camp for a meeting with organizer Wes Clark Jr., the son of former Democratic presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark. The group had said about 2,000 veterans were coming, but it wasn't clear how many actually arrived. "We have been asked by the elders not to do direct action," Wes Clark Jr. said. He added that the National Guard and law enforcement have armored vehicles and are armed, warning: "If we come forward, they will attack us."