Law enforcement officers dressed in riot gear and firing bean bags and pepper spray evicted protesters Thursday from private land in the path of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, dramatically escalating a months-long dispute over Native American rights and the project’s environmental impact. In an operation that took nearly six hours, hundreds of armed state and local police and National Guard — some on foot and others in trucks, military Humvees and buses — pushed past burning barricades to slowly envelop the camp. No serious injuries were reported, though one man was hurt in the leg and received treatment from a medic. More than a dozen protesters who refused to leave were arrested and taken to the Morton County Jail, Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said.
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Among those arrested was a woman who pulled out a .38-caliber pistol and fired three times at officers, narrowly missing a sheriff’s deputy, according State Emergency Services spokeswoman Cecily Fong. Officers did not return fire, she said.
Kirchmeier said that the camp had been cleared by nightfall although police were still dealing with protesters on the perimeter. Though officials earlier said they planned to turn the site over to private security, Kirchmeier said police would stay for now.
“We’re not leaving the area,” he said. “We are just going to make sure that we maintain a presence in the area so the roadway stays open, and to keep individuals from camping on private land.”
Opponents of the pipeline over the weekend set up camp on private land owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, which is working to complete the 1,200-mile pipeline to carry oil from western North Dakota to Illinois. The route skirts the Standing Rock Reservation and the tribe says it could endanger water supplies and disturb cultural sites. The state of North Dakota says no sensitive cultural sites have been found in the area.
The tribe has gone to court to challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision granting permits at more than 200 water crossings. A federal judge in September denied their request to block construction, but three federal agencies stepped in to order construction to halt on Corps-owned land around Lake Oahe, a wide spot of the Missouri River, while the Corps reviewed its decision-making.
Construction was allowed to continue on private land owned by the developer, with a goal of completion by the end of the year. Thursday’s operation to push out the protesters began a day after they had refused to leave voluntarily. Law enforcement repeatedly asked protesters to retreat, at one point using a high-pitched whistle they said was intended to “control and disperse” protesters.
The camp cleared on Thursday is located just to the north of a more permanent and larger encampment on federally owned land which has been the main staging area for hundreds of protesters, including Native Americans from across North America, environmentalists and some celebrities.
Many protesters openly defied the officers, while others took part in prayer circles and burned sage. Cody Hall, a spokesman for the protesters, vowed a new camp would be built elsewhere in the pipeline’s path, but on federal land.
“It’s going to take a lot to move them (protesters) from there,” he said. Authorities said protesters set fire to four large pieces of construction equipment. At least two cars were also burned. Aaron Johnson, 50, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota, said he and other protesters weren’t happy with the day’s outcome. “I came here for peace and prayer,” he said. “When somebody sets something on fire, that’s not peace and prayer.”