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Tense meeting ends in corps getting access to its land

Dakota Access Pipeline protesters gather after Thursday's tense meeting with state and federal officials to talk about protest camp cleanup before water rises into the camp from the Cannonball River. The river is still stable, even after a few days of warm weather, and some from the camp were ice fishing, but officials fear conditions could change quickly. Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune 1 / 2
Indian Affairs Commissioner Scott Davis asks people from the Dakota Access protest camp to cooperate in a peaceful cleanup of the protest camp ahead of possible floodwaters. He made the appeal at a meeting Thursday morning on the Cannonball River bridge near the camp. Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune2 / 2

MORTON COUNTY, N.D. — North Dakota tribal and U.S. Army Corps officials were in a tight, tense spot Thursday morning, surrounded by Dakota Access Pipeline protesters demanding information about a pending cleanup of their camp.

The late-morning meeting was held at camp leaders' insistence at the Cannonball River bridge near the entrance to the main Oceti Sakowin camp after two earlier attempts to meet failed.

The officials held their ground and said the camp has to be cleaned up and it has to be evacuated by Feb. 22, as per the corps' earlier order. Gov. Doug Burgum doubled down on that this week and issued an immediate evacuation notice to the camp Wednesday.

The camp is in the Cannonball River floodplain and fronted by the Missouri River. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and some in the camp have been working for nearly three weeks to clean up piles of garbage, debris, abandoned structures, goods and vehicles, but officials worry time is running out before the lowland fills and the water is contaminated.

The camp has been occupied by as many as 7,000 to 10,000 at its peak. About 300 remain, even while tribe contractors are scraping up refuse all around the occupied dwellings.

Corps Maj. French Pope told about 100 protesters pressed in tightly on all sides to hear and record the exchange that the corps needs to take its environmental contractor through the camp to assess the scope of work.

He urged everyone to remove their personal and culturally important items because, when heavy equipment rolls in, the cleanup will go quickly. He said the corps' rangers can write citations that carry a $5,000 fine and a six-month sentence.

Protesters wanted to know what would happen if they stayed on the high ground in the camp and also whether law enforcement would be brought in to clear any who continue to stand on Standing Rock Sioux Tribe treaty ground.

Chase Iron Eyes, a camp spokesman, said people in the camp need to be prepared if officials are euphemistically using the word "remove" for "raid."

"We've seen brutality; we need your response," Iron Eyes said.

The corps, along with Burgum's policy adviser Levi Bachmeier, stuck to the main script for the meeting, saying the camp must be cleaned up and it has to be vacated by next week.

Bachmeier said talk of treaty land rights should be raised with federal officials.

"We want to prevent trouble and protect the environment. Our focus is to clean up the camp and make sure the river is not polluted," Bachmeier said.

Protesters wanted to know why there wasn't more concern about the pipeline and said conducting an environmental impact statement on the pipeline — which was not done in the permit process — would truly protect the environment.

"Why aren't you doing an EIS?" people called out. "Water is life!" others called.

The camp members agreed to allow the corps to inspect the land — but in limited number and circumstances — possibly sometime later in the afternoon. Rob Keller, Morton County Sheriff's public information officer, confirmed that the corps was allowed into the camp for the inspection. Corps operations manager Eric Stasch said, historically, flooding occurs as soon as March 1 and as late as April 20. Warm weather this week brings an early onset of flood potential, he said.

Meanwhile, the Dakota Access Pipeline, a half-mile away where the company now has a permit to drill a 570,000-barrel-capacity pipe under the river, remains heavily guarded and surrounded by rolls of concertina wire.