If President Obama had set out deliberately to dump a powder keg in the lap of the next president, it’s hard to imagine him doing a better job than with the Dakota Access pipeline.
The Obama administration has refused to address the growing hordes of protesters camped out illegally on federal land, hundreds of whom now are spilling into the North Dakota towns of Mandan and Bismarck as the region draws comparisons to a war zone.
“I spent a good portion of my adult life in Iraq, and I must tell you that the similarities are stark,” said retired Army Gen. James “Spider” Marks, who toured the area last week as an adviser to the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, which supports the pipeline.
“Here we are on American soil,” he said during a press call, “and we have barriers with triple concertina wire, we have observation posts and traffic control points, we have vehicles that have been burned, we have bridges that have been cut.”
Foes of the pipeline blame what they describe as an over-the-top, unnecessarily militarized response by the North Dakota National Guard and county sheriffs, while local officials accuse the Obama administration of creating the problem and then refusing to deal with it.
The administration has declined to provide support for thinly stretched state and local authorities even as alarm grows over a cadre of violent activists with criminal records that has set fires, blocked highways and roads, and thrown rocks, Molotov cocktails and feces at officers.
“This isn’t a state of North Dakota problem, a Morton County problem, a Mandan, a Bismarck problem,” Mandan Mayor Tim Helbling said at a Friday press conference. “This is a federal problem. The corps brought this on.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prolonged the drama last week by delaying again the issuance of a previously approved easement needed for the pipeline company to finish the final 1,100 feet of the project in North Dakota, saying more review was needed.
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said he is “frustrated on every level” after watching his pleas for federal aid fall on deaf ears, but that he hopes the situation will change come Jan. 21, when President-elect Donald Trump is slated to be inaugurated.
“We can only speculate but yes, I think on Jan. 21 there may be a different perspective on this,” Mr. Dalrymple said at the press conference.
For any administration, removing the now-entrenched occupiers would come at a political cost. Led by the Standing Rock Sioux, the protest has become an international cause celebre on the left as environmental groups, Hollywood stars and political luminaries throw their support behind the tribe.
Tribal chairman David Archambault II has been ignored by some protesters with his calls for “peaceful and prayerful” opposition to the pipeline, but he has also condemned law enforcement for using pepper spray, sound cannons and bean-bag rounds against activists.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Civil Rights has sided with the tribe, claiming in an Oct. 28 statement that it was “denied access to information and excluded from consultations,” which the corps has disputed, and urging federal authorities to “protect and facilitate” the protesters.
Calling themselves “water protectors,” the activists have argued that the 1,172-mile, four-state pipeline, which would run under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe about a half-mile from the Standing Rock reservation, puts historic relics and the water supply at risk.
Mr. Dalrymple, a Republican, accused foes of putting politics before science. The oil pipeline would run parallel to an existing natural-gas pipeline, which cleared an environmental assessment without incident.
“[W]hen you analyze the science and the technology, passing a pipeline under the Missouri River, you realize it would be 92 feet below the river bed. The strength of the pipe is extra strong when it goes under the river. The sophisticated monitoring devices on both sides, instantaneous notification, instantaneous response. It really is a state of the art pipeline,” said Mr. Dalrymple, who leaves office in December.
“It certainly appears that it [the protest] is something other than the science and the technology and the facts of the situation,” he said.
The governor said the state has allocated $10 million in emergency funds to handle the additional demands on law enforcement, but so far the federal government has refused to pitch in with funding or resources.
“To give you a short answer, we have had very little progress whatsoever,” Mr. Dalrymple said.
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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