North Dakota takes federal government to trial over costs to police Dakota Access Pipeline protests

By Jack Dura, The Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota is set to take the federal government to trial Thursday for the costs of responding to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the culmination of an unusual and drawn-out court fight.

The state filed the lawsuit in 2019, seeking $38 million from the federal government for policing the protests. Years of legal wrangling followed before the trial date was scheduled in December. The bench trial before U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Traynor is expected to last 12-13 days.

In an interview, North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley said the trial will show examples of numerous requests to the federal government for help and the “complete refusal” to offer resources and financial support in response.

“It ought not be one of the options of the federal government to just throw up its hands and tell states ‘You’re on your own’ in an instance like this where the illegalities are what they are,” Wrigley said.

North Dakota relied on compacts to bring in law enforcement officers from around the region and the country for help, he said.

Thousands of people camped and demonstrated near the oil pipeline’s controversial Missouri River crossing upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation. The tribe has long opposed the pipeline due to the threat of an oil spill polluting the tribe’s water supply.

The protests lasted months. Some days involved clashes between demonstrators and officers, including at a blocked highway bridge where officers used tear gas and rubber bullets and sprayed water in below-freezing temperatures as protesters tried to move past and allegedly threw rocks and burning logs.

The state’s complaint alleges many “trespassers at these unlawful encampments engaged in disruptive, illegal and sometimes violent conduct on federal, State and private lands, including blocking public highways, threatening individuals working on the DAPL pipeline and the local population (such as ranchers), and directly initiating violence against law enforcement personnel and first responders.”

The protests, which lasted from about August 2016 to February 2017, resulted in hundreds of arrests and subsequent criminal cases. Some lawsuits over officers’ use of force are still in court.

Protest activities didn’t necessarily happen every day, said Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, a leader of the law enforcement response. But some incidents delayed traffic, caused road closures, and drew concerns from local residents, farmers and ranchers, he said. Safety of everyone was the biggest concern, he said.

“It was very taxing as far as on the sheriff’s office and for resources to make sure that this stayed as safe as possible throughout the whole protest period,” said Kirchmeier, who added he will testify at trial.

The federal government unsuccessfully sought to dismiss the case. It stated in a 2020 court filing that “the United States denies it is liable to North Dakota” and said the state isn’t entitled to its request or any other relief.

A phone message left for attorneys representing the U.S. was not returned. The Water Protector Legal Collective, a group that assisted protesters in criminal cases, did not respond to a message for comment on the lawsuit.

The pipeline has been transporting oil since June 2017. Many state government officials and industry leaders support the pipeline as crucial infrastructure in the major oil-producing state.

In 2017, the pipeline company donated $15 million to help cover the response costs. That same year, the U.S. Justice Department gave a $10 million grant to the state for reimbursing the response. Wrigley declined to say how those funds affect the amount the state is seeking.

Former President Donald Trump denied a 2017 request from the state for the federal government to cover the costs through a disaster declaration.

A public comment period ended in December on the draft of a court-ordered environmental review of the pipeline’s river crossing. The process is key for the future of the pipeline, with a decision expected in late 2024. The document laid out options of denying the easement and removing or abandoning the line’s river segment, granting the easement with no changes or with additional safety measures, or rerouting the pipeline north of Bismarck.

Jack Dura, The Associated Press

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