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The Backwater Bridge on N.D. Highway 1806 will remain closed although it is structurally sound, authorities said Thursday afternoon.

Testing of core samples from the contested Morton County bridge revealed there were no structural problems, according to a release from the North Dakota Joint Information Center. 

According to the release, some repairs to the guardrails and surface of the bridge are needed. Contingent upon security and weather, those repairs could be made in a couple weeks. 

However, the governor's office and Morton County Sheriff's Department say they will not reopen the road until there is an "assurance no criminal activity will take place and federal law enforcement has been introduced into the protest camp to restore law and order."

The bridge spanning Cantapeta Creek has been closed since Oct. 27, when law enforcement pushed protesters from a northern "front line" camp atop the pipeline route. During the hours-long clash, vehicles were burned on the bridge, which is now blocked with concrete jersey barriers and concertina wire.

Protesters and tribal members have said the continued road block near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation's northern border causes economic harm to the tribe and prevents emergency services from reaching the camp and reservation.

As testing took place Dec. 22, Tribal Chariman Dave Archambault II and Gov. Doug Burgum made a joint statement praising the efforts and said it "illustrated the desire on all sides for a phased reopening of the bridge and resumption of normal traffic and commerce, as well as access to vital human services."

Archambault said Thursday night he's aware “it’s going to be behavior that dictates,” when the bridge is reopened. Tribal leaders met with the camps and let them know, as long as protest actions take place, the bridge was likely to remain closed.

He said they told the camps the bridge is a lifeline for the tribe’s economy and emergency services, letting people know what it’s costing the tribe.

“I do hope that we can resolve everything and get it open as fast as we can,” Archambault said.

He said the tribe also knew repairs were needed and that this could take time due to the cold weather, but feels it's important to make sure the highway is safe.

“That’s everybody’s concern,” he said.

Archambault said he doesn’t think federal law enforcement will be willing to respond but the tribe is asking protesters to move out of the camp and onto higher ground set aside on the reservation due to threats of spring flooding.

“If we can move on that sooner, we can do that easier,” he said of the camp clean up.

Paula Antoine, an appointed organizer of the Rosebud Camp on the reservation and member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, said she believes it is in the "best interests of all if the bridge is opened."

"We have always been open to discussion and reaching out to the area's non-native communities on building better relationships for all of our futures," she wrote in a text message.

"If the sheriff has concerns, we would be willing to sit in a peaceful manner to discuss them. A symbolic step would be to engage the metaphor of building bridges between apparent enemies. The opening of the bridge would be an excellent representation of that process," she continued.

The bridge has been and continues to be a site of confrontations, including a night in November when protesters tried to remove burned out vehicles from the bridge and police used fire hoses to push them back.

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Most recently, the Morton County Sheriff's reported that protesters on Jan. 6 approached the barricade and removed some of the wire. A few allegedly crossed the barricade and yelled at officers who ordered them to leave. 

Reached by phone Thursday evening, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier recognized the bridge has become a key point with the tribe, but insisted that "safety remains No. 1."

"Hopefully, as long as we can work with the tribe as we go along here and we don't have all the incidents at the bridge, it can definitely be worked out," Kirchmeier said. 

The main law enforcement and National Guard operating base is at Fort Rice, which is situated along the stretch of closed highway from Mandan to Cannon Ball.

Kirchmeier said any reopening of the road and bridge would be limited to emergency vehicles at the beginning, "just to make sure we don't have any incidents up there." 

"If the protests remain lawful we'd have no reason for (the base). That hasn't been the case, so that is a concern," he said.

Joye Braun, a longtime-protest organizer from Eagle Butte, S.D., who believes the blockade is keeping necessary services from the camps and the reservation, contends that the continued conflicts at the bridge are provoked by the existence of the blockade.

"If they removed the barricades, that would stop it," she said.

Braun said the pipeline opponents at the main Oceti Sakowin camp are in the process of packing up and moving to a winter camp on the reservation. 

"We’re in the process of cleaning up, removing excess debris and trash, tents that were left there," Braun said.

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Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com

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