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Burgum issues emergency order to vacate protest camps

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Gov. Doug Burgum on Wednesday issued an evacuation order for Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp occupants, saying recent warm weather has made immediate removal of people as well as personal items and structures on the site critical for safety and environmental reasons.

Burgum’s order coincides with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ notice earlier this month to the remaining protesters camping on federal land along the Cannonball River to vacate by next Wednesday.

“All persons occupying or residing in the evacuation area shall immediately begin efforts to remove their personal property and possessions from the evacuation area,” Burgum said in his order, adding that those currently there who begin doing so will be allowed access to the site through next Tuesday.

The primary concern of officials responding to remediation efforts in the area, which is a floodplain that has a history of sustaining heavy flooding, is public safety.

“It relates to the unseasonably warm weather,” Burgum told reporters of the order Wednesday and of the recent spring-like temperatures in the region. “People should be aware of what’s coming.”

Burgum said cleanup efforts at the camp area have been going slowly so far. He gave a rough estimate of about 20 percent of the items needing removal from the site have been taken away. He said efforts will be made to speed up the timeline for removing items at the camp.

“The biggest threat … is the camp itself,” Burgum said of environmental hazard to the river.

Burgum said the large number of illegally constructed housing structures as well as numerous abandoned vehicles, personal belongings and likely presence of human waste are concerning. He added that a large number of propane tanks are likely still there too, which protesters used for heating as temperatures took a nosedive late in the fall.

“Nobody wants to have propane tanks bobbing down the river,” Burgum said.

The mix of recent high temperatures and nearly 60 inches of snowfall since December is as a recipe for a potential crisis, and in a more condensed timeline than previously anticipated.

Protesters have been camping at the site for several months in opposition to the $3.8 billion, four-state pipeline project. Opponents are concerned over river water contamination in the event of a rupture to the line as well as potential damage to tribal cultural sites along the route.

The final piece of the project in North Dakota is being constructed now: drilling under the river less than a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation boundary.

At its peak the camps were home to thousands of tribal and non-tribal protesters gathered from across the country. Again using a rough estimate, Burgum said there’s likely less than a couple hundred people still at the site full-time.

Burgum’s hope is that there will be no need for arrests after Feb. 22 to clear out the camp.

“An opportunity for everyone to come together,” Burgum said of the camp cleanup efforts. “We’re all on the clean water team.”

The protests have resulted in hundreds of arrests since last August as well as tens of millions of dollars to the state for law enforcement response efforts, drawing international attention in the process.

Burgum and the state’s congressional delegation have been pushing for federal dollars to reimburse the costs accrued so far, arguing since the protests began on federal land the federal government should be responsible.

A North Dakota Department of Emergency Services spokeswoman said the state has adequate manpower and resources in the area, ready to deploy in the event of rapid flooding and the need for quick rescuing of individuals were to arise.

(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)

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