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Law enforcement officers used pepper spray Saturday as 200 to 300 protesters gathered during the early morning hours at a Dakota Access Pipeline construction site in Morton County.

"We want to use the most nonlethal method possible," said Rob Keller, a spokesman for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.

The confrontation off N.D. Highway 1806 south of Mandan lasted more than five hours and resulted in 83 arrests. Among those detained were two legal observers, according to Bruce Ellison, a attorney with the protest camp. As of 6 p.m., none had bonded out.

Kellie Berns, a protester who hung back behind a fence at the scene, said she received reports of people being pepper-sprayed and thrown to the ground and described law enforcement as being more aggressive than in past incidents. She said protesters were encircled by police as they walked onto the site. 

"People came back very distressed," she said of those who returned to the fence following the demonstration. "The pipeline is getting a lot closer, so the stakes are getting higher."

On Friday, law enforcement opened a new staging area along Highway 1806 just south of Fort Rice in an effort to reduce response time to less than five minutes, Keller said.

"This is not about the pipeline," said Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier. "This is not about the protesters. This is about the rule of law."

Police received a call at about 5:20 a.m., according to Donnell Preskey, a spokeswoman for the Morton County Sheriff's Department.

She said four protesters were found attached to a personal vehicle that had been driven onto the construction site. She said they had parked the vehicle, slashed its tires and anchored themselves to it.

Two of them were attached to the outside of the vehicle, and one to the steering wheel. The fourth person had fed one arm out through a hole in the door and had his hand encased in a bucket of hardened cement. Once those four individuals were released, they were arrested.

“There’s a very large group of protesters (who) walked from Highway 1806 to the site,” said Preskey, adding that all available officers were called in to respond.

Kirchmeier indicated in a press release that pepper spray was used by officers to protect themselves and other officers, and to control protesters. The statement also said one protester had charged a police line and tried to grab an officer's canister of pepper spray, causing the officer to be sprayed in the face. Other officers secured the man and arrested him.

Two officers received minor injuries, according to a press release.

"This is being termed a riot today because the individuals know they are criminally trespassing," said Capt. Bryan Niewind, of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. "They are creating chaos for law enforcement. They are creating a dangerous environment for us when you have people attaching themselves to equipment."

Charges against those arrested include criminal trespass and engaging in a riot. The latter charge has been leveled more often in recent pipeline demonstrations as a more proactive law enforcement response has been undertaken. Other charges included assault on an officer, reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and fleeing an officer on foot.

The number of people arrested far exceeded the capacity of the Morton County Correctional Center.

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"The Morton County Sheriff's Office is working with other jails in the area to house all these suspects that have been arrested today," said Niewind, who described the protesters as verbally abusive.

Highway 1806 was closed south of Mandan this morning because of the protest.

Saturday’s incident brings the number of arrests made since August to more than 160.

Work on the 1,172-mile, 30-inch-diameter pipeline has been going on since state regulatory approval was granted earlier this year. The project is to run from North Dakota to Illinois at a cost of nearly $3.8 billion. It will have a capacity of 470,000 barrels per day with the ability to increase to 570,000 once completed.

Through September, construction work on the North Dakota portion of the project was close to 90 percent complete.

Protesters who have been camping in Morton County are concerned about potential impacts to the Missouri River, where a crossing under the riverbed less than a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation boundary is planned.

Bismarck Tribune reporters Caroline Grueskin and LeAnn Eckroth contributed to this report.

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

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