MANDAN, N.D. – As Dakota Access Pipeline opponents fanned out and stopped construction at multiple sites again Thursday, Oct. 6, the Morton County sheriff said he has assigned more resources to the area and will call in deputies from other states if necessary to respond to simultaneous protests.
“We have basically tapped the resources to a level that we’ve never seen here in North Dakota for one particular incident,” Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said at a press conference in Mandan.
Laramie County (Wyo.) Sheriff Danny Glick, the current president of the 15-state Western States Sheriffs’ Association and past president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, pledged the groups’ support. He said Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney from Fargo, an NSA board member serving as Kirchmeier’s chief of operations, reached out to him for assistance.
“When we get a call from Sheriff Kirchmeier, we will be ready to respond and assist where we are able,” said Glick, who has been assessing the situation in Morton County since Tuesday.
Glick said sheriffs have provided assistance to other states in response to natural disasters but not for anything like this that he could recall. He praised the existing law enforcement coalition for “doing an excellent job of getting in front of this.”
Since protests began Aug. 10, Morton County has received assistance from 268 officers from 24 different counties and cities in North Dakota, not counting the state Highway Patrol, Kirchmeier said.
The federal government’s refusal to provide manpower and financial assistance – despite an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 pipeline opponents from all over the country are camping mostly on federally owned land in southern Morton County – factored into the call for help from other states, Kirchmeier said.
‘Proactive’ approach used
Kirchmeier said manpower needs were still being evaluated as authorities began to take a more proactive approach by blocking access roads to construction sites for the four-state crude oil pipeline.
On Wednesday, in what he called “a win,” authorities blocked a caravan of protesters from going through the small town of St. Anthony to reach construction sites. But protesters found other ways around and stopped work at five sites west of town.
Pipeline opponents criticized the road-blocking tactic as suppressing their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. Kirchmeier defended it, saying it’s allowed under state law to maintain public safety.
“The intentions have always been to go to these locations, worksites, to shut them down and then to go on and trespass and intimidate the workers so they leave … But just a protest doesn’t give them the legal right to do that,” he said.
Jennifer Cook, policy director for the ACLU of North Dakota, said if authorities are blocking public roads to deter unlawful behavior at construction sites, it’s likely they’re also preventing protesters from reaching public areas near those sites where free speech and the freedom to assemble are constitutionally protected.
“It’s highly problematic and is not a proper use of law enforcement resources,” she said via email. “Additionally, the use of militarized armored vehicles, riot gear, and tactics by law enforcement at protests that consist of peaceful prayer and nonviolent direct actions is a blatant misuse of these tools and will likely encourage police to use force against citizens when force is not necessary for the situation.”
Kirchmeier said deputies also have been assigned to stay in regular contact with farmers and ranchers, citing reports of threats, intimidation and trespassing by protesters.
Protests outside zone
A federal appeals court has ordered Dakota Access to stop construction within 20 miles of the Missouri River at Lake Oahe to give the court more time to consider the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request for an injunction to halt construction while the tribe’s legal challenge to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits plays out. A three-judge appeals court panel in Washington, D.C., heard oral arguments on the request Wednesday but did not issue a ruling.
Kirchmeier noted the construction activities halted by protesters Wednesday and Thursday were outside of the 20-mile exclusion zone.
“The protest has grown outside of what I think the intentions of the Standing Rock people wanted to occur,” he said. “This was all about the water and the pipeline easement going under the (river), not a pipeline being put out in the middle of a prairie.”
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault did not return a message left on his cellphone, and a spokesman for the tribe did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The tribe, which has attracted international support, fears the pipeline will leak and contaminate their water supply and destroy sacred sites.
Pipeline nears completion
The North Dakota leg of the four-state Dakota Access Pipeline was 87 percent complete at the end of September, up from 68 percent in August, according to the monthly construction report filed with the state Public Service Commission late Wednesday.
Most construction activities were more than 93 percent complete, while road bores, tie-ins and directional drilling were between 76 percent and 80 percent complete, Dakota Access LLC reported. The most work remained on testing and cleanup, which were about halfway done.
Construction began May 16 on all three sections of the 346-mile, $1.4 billion North Dakota segment. The company says the 1,172-mile pipeline will begin near Stanley and transport 470,000 barrels of oil per day to a hub in Patoka, Ill., with the ability to expand to 570,000 barrels.
In addition to the tribe’s legal challenge, the Corps also is withholding an easement for the lake crossing as it determines whether it needs to reconsider any of its previous decisions.
The pipeline is slated to be in service by the end of the year, but it’s unclear how the delays at Lake Oahe will affect that schedule.
“There has not been any change to the schedule at this time,” Dakota Access spokeswoman Vicki Granado replied Thursday to an emailed request for comment.