Clean-up crews are racing to clear acres of debris at the largest Dakota Access protest camp before the spring thaw turns the snowy, trash-covered plains into an environmental disaster area.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that the camp, located on federal land, would be closed Feb. 22 in order to “prevent injuries and significant environmental damage in the likely event of flooding in this area” at the mouth of the Cannonball River in North Dakota.
“Without proper remediation, debris, trash, and untreated waste will wash into the Cannonball River and Lake Oahe,” the Corps said in its statement.
Those involved in the clean-up effort, led by the Standing Rock Sioux, say it could take weeks for private sanitation companies and volunteers to clear the expanse of abandoned tents, teepees, sleeping bags, blankets, canned food, supplies and just plain garbage littering the Oceti Sakowin camp.
“It’s unfortunate. Again, that just goes against what they’re fighting against, is leaving that stuff and abandoning it and obviously the environment the river,” Scott Davis, North Dakota Commissioner for Indian Affairs, told KFYR-TV in Bismarck.
Local media outlets posted video and photos of Bobcat bulldozers pushing mounds of debris and snow to be deposited into massive Dumpsters and hauled to the Bismarck landfill.
Officers are inspecting the loads before they wind up in the landfill for “contraband — anything that might be illegal,” said Rob Keller, spokesman for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.
“When all the campers vacated with that first snowstorm, they just kind of left a lot of items behind, and we don’t know what’s under the snow,” said Morton County emergency manager Tom Doering. “There’s a lot of snow being hauled away with these Dumpsters also.”
Many of the several hundred protesters who remained after the early December snowstorm are helping with the effort, some of them attempting to salvage reusable goods. Other activists have been less helpful.
The operation was delayed Wednesday, when activists tried to set up a camp on private property owned by the Dakota Access pipeline company and blocked Highway 1806, resulting in 76 arrests.
The highly charged situation made it too dangerous for drivers with Dakota Sanitation to move in and out of the camp near the town of Cannon Ball, Mr. Doering said.
“It just wasn’t safe, given that they had blocked the road,” he said. “It was doubtful that they were going to let the trucks in, and then the operation pretty much took all day to evict the protesters.”
Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault II has urged protesters for months to vacate the area, citing the environmental damage to the prairie as well as the risk to people and property from the flooding.
“Please, once again, we ask that people do not return to camp,” Mr. Archambault said after the arrests. “The fight is no longer here, but in the halls and courts of the federal government. Here at the camp, those who remain should be working together to help clean and restore the land.”
The Army Corps also asked protesters to leave in early December while assuring them that they would not be evicted forcibly from the illegal encampment on federal land.
But that directive came under former President Barack Obama, who took a hands-off approach even as activists used federal property as a base to launch protests that sometimes turned violent.
Still unclear is whether agency under President Trump will follow through by evicting anyone who refuses to leave after Feb. 22 deadline.
Under Mr. Obama, the agency initiated an Environmental Impact Statement in order to address concerns about the pipeline’s impact on the tribe’s water supply. The deadline for comments is Feb. 20.
The Corps said in Friday’s statement that its notices to vacate the federal property are “unrelated to the Army’s ongoing full review and analysis of the pipeline easement.”
The agency issued an easement in July for the $3.8 billion pipeline to proceed on a 1,100-foot stretch routed under Lake Oahe, only to pull the easement in December under pressure from the tribe and protesters.
Mr. Trump issued a directive last month to expedite the permitting and construction of the $3.8 billion pipeline. Two North Dakota lawmakers said last week they were told that the project would receive the final easement, while the corps responded that the review is still underway.
The 1,172-mile, four-state pipeline, which is nearly completed, runs almost entirely on private land. Pipeline supporters argue that the oil pipeline route runs alongside an existing natural-gas pipeline, making it the least disruptive to the landscape, while tribal leaders have called for rerouting the project.
Thousands of environmental activists moved in and out of the Oceti Sakowin camp last year in the high-profile campaign to stop the pipeline from finishing construction.
Those working at the clean-up site have said it’s tough to see so many supplies, many of them donated by well-wishers, wind up in Dumpsters.
“I came here to fight for the environment,” Joe Britt, who had been in charge of camp construction, told the Bismarck Tribune. “A lot of this stuff was donated and used once and now it’s garbage. It’s like the aftermath of a hurricane.”