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Governor orders immediate evacuation of Dakota Access protest camp; protesters say they are staying put

Oceti Sakowin camp on the north side of the Cannonball River has grown to an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers has set a deadline of Dec. 5 for the eviction of the Oceti Sakowin camp for people protesting the Dakota Access pipeline from corps-owned land. Photo by Kevin Cederstrom / Forum News Service

BISMARCK - Gov. Jack Dalrymple has ordered an emergency evacuation of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, citing safety concerns due to harsh winter weather.

Dalrymple’s order signed Monday, Nov. 28, states that people camping in areas near the Cannonball River are ordered to leave immediately and take their possessions with them. The order comes three days after the Corps told the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe it would close the Corps-managed land north of the Cannonball River on Dec. 5.

The governor’s order, which will stay in effect until rescinded, applies to Corps lands where the agency has not permitted camping, said governor spokesman Jeff Zent. However, the state does not have plans to remove people from the site, Zent said.

“We’re not going to go in and make arrests and forcibly remove everybody that’s on that site,” Zent said. “We fully expect the federal government to take the lead on the management of their property.”

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II said late Monday the most dangerous thing would be to “force well-situated campers from their shelters and into the cold.”

“This state executive order is a menacing action meant to cause fear, and is a blatant attempt by the state and local officials to usurp and circumvent federal authority,” Archambault said in a statement.

Dalrymple’s order, issued as Morton County was getting hit with a winter storm, states that emergency services will likely not be available to people who continue to camp in violation of the order.

“Any person who chooses to enter, re-enter, or stay in the evacuation does so at their own risk, and assumes any and all corresponding liabilities for their unlawful presence and occupation of the evacuation area,” the order states. A winter storm warning is in effect for the area through Wednesday evening, with heavy snow expected to accumulate to 8 to 13 inches in central North Dakota. Morton County is expected to have winds reaching up to 25 miles per hour on Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

Emergency services would only be provided to the area on a case-by-case basis as approved by the Morton County sheriff or superintendent of the North Dakota Highway Patrol, the order says. Zent noted that while the Corps manages the lands, the state and local authorities are the ones with responsibility for emergency services.

Angela Bibens, an attorney who is leading a legal collective at the camp, said during a press conference late Monday that she does not believe the governor has jurisdiction on Corps-managed land. Bibens called the governor’s order a “misuse of emergency declarations to justify an armed invasion of peaceful encampment” and said the collective will take legal action if any force is imposed on the camps. Other protest organizers who participated in the press conference said they’re not leaving the camp.

“Our strength is in our unity,” said Kandi Mossett, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network and member of the Three Affiliated Tribes in western North Dakota. “We’re not going to be going anywhere, especially in the middle of a blizzard in North Dakota.”

The governor’s office did not coordinate the emergency evacuation order with the Corps, Zent said. On Sunday, the Corps said it would not forcibly remove people who continue camping north of the Cannonball River after Dec. 5, but activists who choose to stay do so at their own risk. The agency also cited concerns about winter weather and availability of emergency services.

The Corps said it is “seeking a peaceful and orderly transition to a safer location” as it closes the federally managed land that pipeline protesters refer to as the Oceti Sakowin camp. The Corps is encouraging people to move to an area south of the Cannonball River designated as a “free speech zone.”

“In this area, jurisdiction for police, fire, and medical response is better-defined since it is located inside of the Reservation boundary making it a more sustainable area for visitors to endure the harsh North Dakota winter,” the agency said in a statement. The Corps also is encouraging people to move to land identified by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as a winter camp. The governor’s evacuation order would not apply to the “free speech zone” designated by the Corps, Zent said.

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said the announcement from the Corps to close the main protest camp on Dec. 5 came as welcome news, but he continues to seek more help from the federal government.

“It was a decision that probably should have been made a while ago,” Kirchmeier said Monday. “We still need the federal assistance and the commitment from the federal government to help resolve this issue that’s bigger than just Morton county and the state.”

The Army Corps did not answer questions Monday from Forum News Service seeking clarification on how the closure would be enforced. In a statement, the Corps said those who stay after the land is closed to the public on Dec. 5 will be considered unauthorized and “may be subject to citation under federal, state or local laws.”

Camp organizers told a news conference on Saturday at the main protest site where about 5,000 people are camped that they had no intention of moving. There are smaller camps on land not subject to the planned restrictions. Meanwhile, the state costs to respond to the Dakota Access protests climbed to $11.8 million at the end of last week, said Cecily Fong, spokeswoman for the Department of Emergency Services. The agency will ask to borrow an additional $7 million from the Bank of North Dakota to support law enforcement costs associated with the protests during Wednesday’s meeting of the North Dakota Emergency Commission, according to the meeting agenda. That’s in addition to the $10 million the commission has already authorized.

Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access LLC, has made public statements about reimbursing the state for the costs. However, Zent has said the governor’s office has not received such an offer.

Dakota Access said in recent federal court records that delays of the pipeline’s completion will cost the company $2.7 million in lost revenue per day after Jan. 1, or $83.3 million per month.

The 1,172-mile project is mostly complete except for the segment planned to run under Lake Oahe, less than half a mile north of Standing Rock. The company is seeking to get a federal judge to intervene after the Corps announced on Nov. 14 that additional discussion with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is needed before an easement can be issued for the Lake Oahe crossing.

Demonstrators have protested for months against the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, saying it poses a threat to water resources and sacred Native American sites. Dakota Access says the pipeline would carry Bakken shale oil more cheaply and safely from North Dakota to Illinois en route to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.

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