By Terray Sylvester
CANNON BALL, N.D. (Reuters) – North Dakota’s governor on Monday ordered the expulsion of protesters camped on federal property near the site of the oil pipeline project they oppose, saying the “emergency evacuation” was necessary to protect them from harsh winter conditions.
The executive order from Governor Jack Dalrymple came two days after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would close public access to the main protest encampment, about 30 miles south of Bismark, setting a Dec. 5 deadline for demonstrators opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline to leave the area.
Demonstrators have protested for months against plans to run the Dakota Access Pipeline beneath Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, saying it poses a threat to water resources and to sacred Native American sites.
“Winter conditions have the potential to endanger human life, especially when they are exposed to these conditions without proper shelter, dwellings or sanitation for prolonged periods of time,” the governor’s order stated.
It added that the area around the protest camp, just north of the Cannonball River, is “not zoned for dwellings suitable for living in winter conditions.”
A spokeswoman for the tribe did not have an immediate comment.
Last week local law enforcement sought to disperse demonstrators opposed to the pipeline, many of whom are members of the Standing Rock tribe, by spraying protesters with water in sub-freezing temperatures.
Activists protesting the pipeline have vowed to continue their resistance.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier added to the pressure on Monday by issuing a video statement urging protesters to avoid subjecting themselves to “life-threatening conditions” by remaining exposed to the elements with little shelter.
The National Weather Service has posted a winter storm warning for most of western and central North Dakota, forecasting the possibility of heavy snow through Wednesday.
Protest leaders suggested that a forced evacuation of the camp could prove even more dangerous to the activists.
“We’re in the heart of winter now. To even think of a forced removal is terrifying,” said Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with Indigenous Environmental Network, who estimated there were around 5,000 people in the camp.
Demonstrators have protested for months against plans to run the $ 3.8 billion pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners LP, beneath Lake Oahe, formed by a dam on the Missouri River, about a half mile (0.8 km) from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
The companies say the pipeline would carry Bakken shale oil more cheaply and safely from North Dakota to Illinois en route to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries than it could be shipped by railroad or tanker trucks.
The 1,172-mile (1,885-km) project is mostly complete except for the segment planned to run under Lake Oahe.
The Obama administration in September postponed final approval of an Army Corps permit required to allow tunneling beneath the lake, a move intended to give federal officials more time to consult with tribal leaders. The delay also led to escalating tensions over the project.
Police drew condemnation from the American Civil Liberties Union and others last week when they used water hoses in below-freezing weather in an attempt to disperse about 400 activists near the proposed tunnel excavation site.
“They don’t need to be worried about us in the winter,” said Kandi Mossett, from the Indigenous Environmental Network. “We’re perfectly capable of being self-sufficient. So using this as an excuse is insulting.”