Opponents of a North Dakota oil pipeline project barricaded a highway Wednesday and pitched camp on private property, setting up a confrontation with police.
The latest actions by supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe come after a tense weekend when 127 protesters were arrested on a variety of charges, including reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and trespassing. The protesters, many of whom are from other parts of the nation, oppose the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.
Members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation last week pleaded in a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other federal officials to provide more resources for state and local law enforcement as the protests grew more heated.
“Increased support for law enforcement is necessary to ensure the protests do not escalate to a situation in which lives are in serious danger,” said the letter signed by Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer.
The Standing Rock Tribe and supporters have engaged in protests and civil disobedience in recent months against the pipeline project, which spans 1,200 miles and will transport oil from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois. The tribe said the project would harm sacred Native American lands and that a future pipeline leak could poison its water supply.
Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II issued a statement Monday blaming law enforcement officers for overreacting and characterizing the protests as peaceful attempts to protect the tribe’s water from a future oil spill.
“The militarization of local law enforcement and enlistment of multiple law enforcement agencies from neighboring states is needlessly escalating violence and unlawful arrests against peaceful protesters at Standing Rock,” Archambault said. “We do not condone reports of illegal actions, but believe the majority of peaceful protesters are reacting to strong-arm tactics and abuses by law enforcement.”
The tribal chairman also called on the U.S. Department of Justice to step in – but not for the same reasons outlined by the state’s congressional delegation.
“The DOJ should be enlisted and expected to investigate the overwhelming reports and videos demonstrating clear strong-arm tactics, abuses and unlawful arrests by law enforcement,” Archambault said.
A Justice Department spokesman said this week that the department continues to monitor the situation and offer limited support to law enforcement.
“The Justice Department is taking the situation in North Dakota seriously and has been in communications with state and local law enforcement officials, as well as tribal representatives and protesters, to facilitate communication, defuse tensions, support peaceful protests and maintain public safety,” spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in an email to AMI Newswire. “The department has also offered technical assistance and community policing resources to local law enforcement in support of these goals.”
Hornbuckle stressed that the Army is continuing to review environmental issues raised by the tribe and that it will not yet authorize any pipeline constructions on Corps of Engineers land near or under Lake Oahe in the south-central part of the state.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier and other law enforcement officials in the region have ticked off a lengthening list of protest activities that they say are illegal. These include buzzing a sheriff’s helicopter with a drone aircraft, firing arrows in the direction of law enforcement, harassing journalists, assaulting officers and trespassing on private land now owned by the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The state’s federal lawmakers have also denounced the butchering and displacement of livestock in the community of Cannon Ball that took place as protests ramped up.
“For months protesters have described us as an aggressive police force,” Kirchmeier said in a prepared statement this week. “We have done nothing but demonstrate patience and restraint.”
The Sheriff’s Department this week also announced that a county investigation concluded that dog handlers who were used by Dakota Access Pipeline security in recent months were not properly licensed. The dogs were used against protesters in earlier confrontations, a Sheriff’s Department news release said.
A report on the incident was sent to the State’s Attorney’s Office for possible charges.
Letters sent to President Obama last week from groups representing organized labor and industry called on Obama to allow the pipeline project to proceed. Though federal courts have upheld the two-year approval process for the pipeline, the administration last month moved to halt the project around Lake Oahe pending a review of previous decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“The intervention by the Department of Justice, Interior and the U.S. Army to halt a project for an indefinite period of time, using the leverage that the federal government possesses with regard to its easement on Corps property, is unprecedented and without comparison,” said the letter from the National Infrastructure Alliance, a group of labor organizations.