Federal Judge Allows North Dakota to Pursue Protest Reimbursements

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota may move forward with efforts to recoup the money it spent policing protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline, a federal judge ruled Wednesday. 

U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Traynor denied the federal government’s motion to dismiss North Dakota’s lawsuit seeking to recover more than $38 million in damages the state claimed from the monthslong pipeline protests almost four years ago.

The state filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2019, and a hearing on the government’s request to dismiss it was held last month in U.S. District Court in Bismarck.

The $3.8 billion pipeline has been moving oil from the Dakotas through Iowa to Illinois for more than three years. Thousands of opponents gathered in southern North Dakota in 2016 and early 2017, camping on federal land and often clashing with police. Hundreds were arrested over six months.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe opposed the pipeline built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners over fears it would harm cultural sites and the tribe’s Missouri River water supply — claims rejected by the company and the state. 

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Wednesday that the Corps “allowed and sometimes encouraged” protesters to illegally camp without a federal permit. The Corps has said protesters weren’t evicted due to free speech reasons.

The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately return a message seeking comment on Wednesday.

Traynor, who is based in Bismarck, wrote the Corps failed to comply with its own mandatory permitting process. 

“As a result, there was no limitation on the gathering and no bond available to clean up the spoiled environment that was left,” his ruling said.

“Here, the maxim applies: ‘You break it, you bought it,’” he wrote. 

Stenehjem called the ruling significant and the state has an “excellent chance” of recouping its costs.

“All we're asking is that they pay us back for the expenses they forced us to take,” Stenehjem said.

President Donald Trump in 2018 denied a state-requested disaster declaration to cover the state’s costs. The Justice Department later gave the state a $10 million grant for policing-related bills. The pipeline developer gave the state $15 million to help with the costs that were funded from loans from the state-owned Bank of North Dakota.

Stenehjem has said the $25 million the state has received to offset the costs doesn’t get the Corps off the hook for the state’s $38 million total cost.

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