Months after a protest of the Dakota Access oil pipeline swelled into a movement that drew thousands of people and national attention, the demonstrators that remained Wednesday faced a looming deadline to evacuate or face arrest.
Even before the evacuation deadline, imposed last week by North Dakota’s governor, the main protest camp had already turned into a muddy pit, the ground soggy with melted snow.
Video footage and images on cable news and social media Wednesday showed flaming structures at the camp that protesters had apparently set on fire in the camp’s final hours.
A policy adviser to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe could not immediately confirm who set the structures ablaze. The Associated Press reported that praying protesters said they were burning the structures, including a yurt and teepee, as part of the ceremony involved in leaving the camp.
The evacuation deadline Wednesday afternoon in North Dakota was the latest confrontation in a bitter fight over a crude-oil pipeline, a standoff on a desolate prairie that drew movie stars, military veterans and investment bankers to an unlikely front line. The tribe has argued that a stretch of the $3.8 billion pipeline threatens its water supply, crosses burial grounds and violates treaties between Native Americans and the federal government.
President Donald Trump has supported the project and ultimately cleared the way for it. He signed an order aimed at expediting the pipeline’s approval before his administration approved final permits needed to complete it. The move came as Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II arrived in Washington ahead of a scheduled White House meeting, leading him to say: “I think that I was set up.”
A federal judge has left open the possibility of further court intervention, and the company behind the pipeline has said that oil could flow within 30 days.
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At the main camp, the remaining pipeline protesters - who numbered about 200 or so earlier this month, down from the thousands who gathered in the fall - were preparing to leave the property due to the eviction notice.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued notices earlier this month saying it was closing federal property in the area that it managed due to “the likely event of flooding in the area,” stating that protest camps were located in a potentially flood-prone spot.
Following that, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) signed an executive order last week ordering a mandatory evacuation of people in what he called an “unlawful occupation.” In his order, Burgum wrote that the areas being occupied are in areas that “routinely experience spring flooding and are historically subject to flash flooding,” adding that unseasonably warm temperatures have hastened the potential for flooding.
People camping in the area were given until 2 p.m. Wednesday. The deadline was set to allow contractors “to accelerate the removal of waste from the camp,” Burgum’s office said.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said Wednesday morning that it was closely monitoring law enforcement activity at the camp and called on “everyone to remain peaceful.”
People who visited and lived at the camps vowed to continue to fight, with one saying this month that despite the decision to allow the pipeline to proceed, “this hasn’t been all for nothing.” Others who gathered at the camps said they would not leave, even in the face of the eviction order.
One member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe said that he expected some people would “take a stand both against the pipeline and for indigenous rights,” saying he was concerned that “something may go awry and some people may get hurt.”