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Follow the money

“We believe that water is important, fossil fuels are dangerous and native sovereignty is vital.”

That, Alison Carey said, is why she and other protestors descended on the Wells Fargo Bank branch on Main Street in Ashland to protest at least 10 times in the past three weeks. 

The parent company of the bank branch is one of about three dozen financial institutions providing credit to finance the $3.8 billion, 1,200-mile pipeline intended to carry nearly a half-million gallons of oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois.

The Standing Rock Sioux, who say the pipeline's route plows through sacred sites, have been fighting the project since 2014. Protesters began camping near the site in April 2016 in an effort to stop the project. 

Carey's group is far from alone in Ashland in speaking out against the pipeline and treatment of "water protectors," mostly Native Americans, protesting on and near its planned route under the Missouri River south of Bismarck, North Dakota. The route was originally supposed to go north of Bismarck, well away from the Sioux reservation, but was rerouted south of the city and downstream due to concerns about the city's water supply.

Demonstrators crowded the Ashland Plaza Friday at a rally organized by a freshly formed group calling itself Southern Oregon Solidarity with Standing Rock, demanding an end to work toward completion of the nearly completed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and encouraging Wells Fargo customers to close their accounts.

Protestors primarily object to what they claim are civil rights abuses and a refusal to recognize the rights of native tribes, as well as the threat that oil spills could contaminate water sources serving millions of people. The group marched about three blocks from the Plaza along East Main Street to Wells Fargo and Chase banks. Chase has also issued a credit line to Energy Transfer Partners, the primary company building the pipeline.

Other, unaffiliated protestors like Nathan Hill have been standing outside the bank with their own signs saying “Water is life,” the motto of the water protectors. Hill said he is doing it to inform banks of the will of their customers. He said they need to know that people are not supporting this pipeline or other projects like it. Hill claimed withdrawing money from banks that fund pipelines is one way “we have to make people aware. It’s actually putting a dent into things.” 

Norway’s largest bank, DNB, pulled its assets from the project in mid-November and demanded an investigation into claims made by the the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of human rights and environmental violations. DNB financed roughly 10 percent of the project, more than Chase but less than Wells Fargo. 

A banking industry watchdog publication, BankTrack, saying that human rights concerns have prompted a member of the United Nations forum on indigenous issues to be sent to North Dakota to monitor the situation, has urged its readers to encourage bankers backing the project to consider pulling out. 

“After years of pipeline disasters — from the massive tar sands oil spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2010, to the recent oil pipeline spills in the San Joaquin Valley and Ventura, California, this project poses another threat to safety, health and the environment," the BankTrack letter said. It also underscores "ongoing mistreatment of Native Americans in the United States and the absence of true consultation processes. More than 30 environmental organizations have called to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline as they stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux (and) other local tribes, and landowners in their fight against this massive crude oil pipeline.” 

It’s not clear how many customers have moved money out of participating banks in the Dakota Access Pipeline but the pressure to do so continues. Calls to Wells Fargo were not returned.

Removing money from the bank as a message for it to withdraw from the project is one way, say organizers, to shut the pipeline down. So far Wells Fargo has not reacted to the protests that have been occurring in cities across the country, but Carey said she’s more concerned with individual account holders acting on their conscience.

“I don’t know if it will work for Wells Fargo," said Carey, who is director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle," "but it will work for people removing their money.” 

While Wells Fargo wouldn't comment on whether accounts had been closed, Rogue Credit Union, which also has a bank branch in downtown Ashland, but no pipeline connection, responded to an inquiry with a written statement from President and CEO Gene Pelham saying, “Rogue Credit Union has seen significant growth in membership for a wide variety of reasons, the Dakota Access Pipeline included. ... (W)e are thankful that new and old members alike rely on Rogue Credit Union as a trusted, local financial institution.”

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.

A crowd of protestors, led by Jake Cox, center, descend Friday on Wells Fargo Bank in Ashland to cancel accounts and shout discontent at the bank's corporate funding of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta