Governor, tribal leader discuss reducing protest tensions

Oil Pipeline Protest
In this image provided by Morton County Sheriff's Department, law enforcement and protesters clash near the site of the Dakota Access pipeline on Nov. 20, 2016, in Cannon Ball, N.D.
Morton County Sheriff's Department via AP File

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault have met to discuss reducing tensions between law officers and Dakota Access oil pipeline opponents, as the main protest camp begins to clear out after the federal government stalled the $3.8 billion project.

Developer Energy Transfer Partners and the Army are battling in court over permission for the pipeline to cross under the Missouri River in southern North Dakota, the last large chunk of construction for the project to move North Dakota oil 1,200 miles to a shipping point in Illinois. Thousands of opponents who have protested for months have been leaving their main camp in southern North Dakota in recent days due to the work stoppage and severe winter weather.

Archambault said Tuesday that the tribe estimates only about 300 people remain in the main camp. Dalrymple said in a statement that the camp might be vacated by Jan. 1, but Archambault said that's not the case. Some in the camp have said they need until the end of the year to complete their exit, while others plan to stay the winter, he said.

An unknown number of others remain in another camp nearby that's run by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a protest organizer. Allard didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday, but she said in a social media post Monday that "we are not going anywhere."

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Some pipeline opponents fear a federal judge will give ETP permission to finish the project or that the administration of pro-energy President-elect Donald Trump will overturn an Army decision this month not to grant permission for the river crossing. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that according to people with knowledge of the decision former Texas Governor Rick Perry is Trump's choice to lead the Energy Department. Perry is on the board of ETP, although Archambault said that doesn't discourage him.

"We're not opposed to energy development -- we're just asking that you don't do it off our backs," the chairman said. The tribe and its supporters believe the pipeline threatens American Indian cultural sites and the tribe's drinking water, which is drawn from the Missouri. ETP disputes that. Dalrymple and Archambault both said that efforts to normalize relations between the state and tribe rest heavily on reopening a state Highway 1806 bridge right outside the camp. The Backwater Bridge has been closed since being damaged by fire set by protesters in late October.

The state Transportation Department says the bridge won't be inspected until the safety of workers is ensured. Pipeline opponents think the state is deliberately leaving the bridge closed to block protesters in from the north. "The bridge is the main issue," Archambault said. "How can we get (the blockade) removed as soon as possible so that it opens up emergency service routes, opens up commerce again for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe."

Dalrymple said the plan is to enlist the help of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to maintain safety while workers inspect the bridge. Archambault said a timeline wasn't developed during the Monday meeting, which also was attended by other Tribal Council members and s state officials.

"The meeting was constructive, an important step toward rebuilding long-term relationships," Dalrymple said. Also, prosecutor Ladd Erickson said he wants people who have been arrested for protesting against the pipeline to reimburse the state for their court-appointed attorneys.

The protests have resulted in 570 arrests since August, creating an unprecedented burden for the state's court system. The Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents plans to seek $670,000 from the Legislature to help cover the costs of protest-related cases.