North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced Tuesday that the federal government is moving in to accelerate the cleanup at the Dakota Access protest camp before the snowmelt turns the area into an “environmental disaster.”
Despite weeks of cleanup at the Oceti Sakowin camp led by the Standing Rock Sioux, the job is only about half-finished. Some areas of the camp, which was built on a floodplain, are already under several inches of water.
“With near-record high temperatures expected later this week and significant meltwater flooding already occurring, the situation grows increasingly unsafe by the day,” said Mr. Burgum in a statement. “Immediate action is needed to protect human life and prevent any further pollution of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers.”
Maj. French Pope of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was scheduled Tuesday to visit the camp, located on federal land, in order to assess how the agency can help before flooding carries away the remaining debris, trash, human waste and even cars.
“Today’s assessment by the Army Corps of Engineers is crucial to accelerating the cleanup process so this land can be properly cleared of garbage, structures, vehicles and human waste before it washes into the rivers,” the governor said. “We cannot afford to wait any longer.”
State officials warned that time is running out until the wet conditions at the camp create a “potential public health and environmental disaster.”
At the same time, the corps’ decision last week to approve an easement for the Dakota Access pipeline has heightened fears that crowds of activists will return to the site after leaving during heavy December snowstorms.
“As long as we have frozen ground and melting snow, the water is going to continue to rise in the camps,” said Dave Glatt, environmental health section chief for the state Department of Health. “They will have to double their efforts to remove the waste in a timely manner. Any protestors at the camp who refuse to move or intend to engage in criminal activity are only exacerbating a very delicate, dangerous situation for those who depend on the land and water.”
Since August, 705 protest-related arrests have been made, most for trespassing and rioting, involving 660 people. Nearly all — 92 percent — of those arrested were from outside the state, according to the North Dakota Joint Information Center.
The last major clash was Feb. 1, when police arrested 76 activists for refusing to disperse after blocking a highway and setting up a camp on property owned by the pipeline company.
Several hundred protesters have remained at the Sacred Stone Camp, which is located on private land away from the floodplain. The camp has joined the tribe and local officials in aiding with the clean-up effort.
The U.S. Geological Survey plans to install next week a rapid deployment gauge on the Cannonball Bridge in order to monitor the water level and track ice jams.
“The Cannonball River and the Cantepeta Creek, along with the Missouri River, all come together in the area of the protest camp, which is sitting down in the floodplain,” said Garland Eberle, an engineer with the State Water Commission. “We’ve historically seen ice jamming which causes a backup of flood water. If you’re really trying to protect the river, it is imperative we get that stuff cleaned up before we see a flood.”
The corps has given protesters until Feb. 22 to evacuate the Oceti Sakowin camp.