Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images(NEW YORK) — Dakota Access Pipeline protesters at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation in North Dakota met with state representatives on Thursday, after the governor issued an emergency evacuation order for the Oceti Sakowin protest camp.
John Bigelow, media director of the Oceti Sakowin camp, told ABC News that representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and one official from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department attended the meeting outside on the Cannonball River Bridge, along with officials from North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s office, including the executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, Scott Davis.
The meeting was scheduled, in part, to discuss the details of the emergency evacuation order, according to Bigelow.
A source at the camp told ABC News after Thursday’s meeting that the federal deadline of Feb. 22 — the same deadline set by the governor’s order — remains in effect for the camp to be vacated.
Burgum signed an emergency evacuation order on Wednesday night for the Oceti Sakowin protest camp “out of concern for the safety of people who are residing on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) land in southern Morton County and to avoid an ecological disaster to the Missouri River,” according to a statement from the Republican governor’s office.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe began coordinating a cleanup in late January, but state officials say it isn’t happening fast enough. Burgum’s emergency evacuation order cited increasing temperatures and the threat of flooding as the impetus in speeding up the camp’s clean-up.
“Warm temperatures have accelerated snowmelt in the area of the Oceti Sakowin protest camp, and the National Weather Service reports that the Cannonball River should be on the watch for rising water levels and an increased risk of ice jams later this week,” the statement from the governor’s office read.
“Due to these conditions, the governor’s emergency order addresses safety concerns to human life as anyone in the floodplain is at risk for possible injury or death. The order also addresses the need to protect the Missouri River from the waste that will flow into the Cannonball River and Lake Oahe if the camp is not cleared and the cleanup expedited,” the statement added.
The Cannonball River is a tributary of the Missouri River.
The Army Corps, in a letter issued Feb. 3, ordered those camping on federal property to vacate to prevent injuries and significant environmental damage in the event of flooding in the area.
“The Oceti Sakowin camp needs to be evacuated no later than Feb. 22 in order to allow private contractors to accelerate the removal of waste from the camp,” the statement from the governor’s office read.
Bigelow, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who has been at the Oceti Sakowin protest camp for the past six months, said law enforcement officials on Wednesday moved up the barricade separating protesters from the pipeline construction area to within a few hundred yards of the camp’s north gate, the main entrance. But there was no law enforcement presence south of the barricade ahead of Thursday’s meeting, Bigelow said.
Bigelow said there was some tension Thursday morning when front-load tractors and roll-off trucks rolled in to begin removing garbage and waste from the campground, which is situated at the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation.
“Most folks are concentrating on breaking down their camps to move out of Oceti Sakowin and either back home or to one of the other camps that’s been set up,” he told ABC News Thursday, ahead of the scheduled meeting.
Federal officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs remained south of the barricade Thursday morning and were expected to set up a road block to prevent vehicles from crossing the Cannonball River Bridge during the meeting, according to Bigelow.
The Army Corps granted an easement on Feb. 8 to the developer of the Dakota Access Pipeline, allowing it to install the final segment of the 1,172-mile pipeline. Part of this 1.25-mile section will run under Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir in North Dakota just upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation.
“The safety of those located on Corps-managed land is our top priority, in addition to preventing contaminants from entering the waterway,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District Commander Col. John Henderson said in a statement at the time. “We appreciate the proactive efforts of the tribes to help clean the protest site ahead of potential flooding along the river, typical during the runoff season.”
The granting of the easement follows a decision on Feb. 7 by Robert Speer, the acting secretary of the Army, to terminate the notice of intent to perform an environmental impact statement and to notify Congress of the Army’s intent to grant permission for the crossing under Lake Oahe. Speer said the decision was made based on a sufficient amount of available information.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said in a statement at the time that it will “challenge any easement decision” on the grounds that the environmental impact statement was “wrongfully terminated.” The tribe said it will also “demand a fair, accurate and lawful environmental impact statement to identify true risks to its treaty rights, including its water supply and sacred places.”
If the Dakota Access Pipeline is completed and begins operating, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said it will “seek to shut the pipeline operations down.”
While the Army Corps says this area is federally owned land, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe cites an 1851 treaty that it says designates the land for Native American tribes. The tribe, which claims its members were never meaningfully consulted before construction began, sued in July to block the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline. That lawsuit is pending, and the Army Corps and the company behind the pipeline argued in court papers that they followed a standard review process.
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