Monday, February 26, 2024 - 01:30pm

BISMARCK, N.D. – Gov. Doug Burgum testified today in the trial over North Dakota’s claim that the federal government owes the state $38 million in damages incurred in the state’s emergency response to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests. 

The state’s lawsuit contends that the U.S. government allowed thousands of protesters to engage in an unpermitted and illegal occupation of federal land managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that spanned almost eight months during construction of DAPL in 2016 and 2017. From the Corps land, protesters launched often combative and violent protests, which North Dakota was left to deal with on its own, spending tens of millions of dollars to protect public safety and property and clean up the mess left behind by protesters on federal property. 

“Since the beginning, we have taken the position that the federal government – not North Dakota taxpayers – should shoulder the burden of the enormous costs of law enforcement and other resources expended on the DAPL protests and cleanup,” Burgum said after he testified. “Instead of evicting protesters from federal lands, the U.S. government enabled and encouraged protesters to use Corps land as a home base to launch their often violent and illegal protests. As this trial is showing, the federal government knew it wasn’t following its own laws and policies but continued to play politics with the pipeline, turning a deaf ear to North Dakota’s pleas for help and enforcement. It’s time for the feds to pay up and make North Dakota whole.”

In total, North Dakota’s emergency response to the DAPL protests lasted over 230 days, involved 178 response agencies, and spanned Morton, Sioux, Burleigh and Emmons counties. During the protests, North Dakota law enforcement made 761 arrests, 709 of which were out-of-state residents. The cleanup of the DAPL camps required over 600 roll-off dumpsters for a total of 9.8 million pounds of garbage and hazardous materials. 

After taking office Dec. 15, 2016, Burgum oversaw the state’s response to the protest through its conclusion. The protest camp on Corps land was cleared without loss of life on Feb. 23, 2017, following an emergency evacuation order issued by Burgum on Feb. 15.

“We were very concerned about the life safety issue, and of course we were trying to establish the rule of law in North Dakota,” Burgum testified today.

The prolonged protest was a “disaster” for North Dakota, Burgum testified, not only because local residents were living in fear of violence, vandalism and harassment by protesters, but also because of misinformation being spread on social media – harming the state’s reputation, tourism and the ability to attract capital and talent to North Dakota. 

Rather than trying to remove protesters from the Corps land, the federal government allowed thousands of protesters to camp at the site near Cannon Ball and use it as a “base of operations” to carry out illegal activities, Burgum testified. This “tacit approval,” he noted, included the Corps publicly announcing it had granted a special use permit to allow protesters to remain on Corps land, even though no such permit was issued – a factual error the Corps failed to correct publicly.

The Corps’ permissive attitude toward the protesters was “shockingly confusing” because the agency has a reputation for intolerance toward any type of private activity on Corps-managed land, Burgum testified.

“They’re very protective of their property, and that’s why the protest camp was a shocking contrast to anything they’d ever done,” he said. 

The main camp on Corps land was hijacked by out-of-state protesters and grew into an uncontrolled, “armed occupation camp” with its own armed security forces, Burgum noted. As a result of the illegal activities launched from the site, the state had to expend millions in law enforcement costs to protect lives and property, all while working with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others to resolve the protest peacefully and without loss of life. 

Had the federal government taken action right away and denied protesters access to the Corps land, “it would have never scaled up the way it did,” Burgum said. 

The trial before U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Traynor is expected to conclude in mid-March.