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Law enforcement officers keep Dakota Access Pipeline opponents from entering a construction site Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, near St. Anthony, N.D. File photo / Forum News Service

Disaster declaration declined for DAPL costs, feds unlikely to cover $38 million bill

BISMARCK -- The state of North Dakota’s efforts to recover costs associated with the monthslong Dakota Access Pipeline protests hit a snag in recent weeks, but state officials say they’re continuing to explore their options.

Gov. Doug Burgum’s request to President Donald Trump for a major disaster declaration was denied about three weeks after it was made in late April, the governor’s spokesman Mike Nowatzki said Wednesday, July 12. The first-term Republican governor, who inherited the pipeline dispute when he took office in December, described a “prolonged, often combative and violent protest” that spanned 233 days in his 11-page letter to Trump.

The state and Morton County have incurred $38 million associated with the protests, with some bills still trickling in, said state Department of Emergency Services spokeswoman Cecily Fong. She said a detailed breakdown of the protest costs wasn’t available, but about $20 million is for law enforcement expenses like salaries and overtime, while the rest is for equipment, supplies and other costs.

Fong said “it may take months to fully tally the costs.”

The federal government would have reimbursed 75 percent of the expenses had the disaster declaration been approved, Fong said, and the state and Morton County would have split the remaining 25 percent.

The protests, prompted by objections raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, attracted thousands to camps near the Missouri River south of Bismarck. Officers made 761 arrests in eight months, the governor’s letter said, while about 1,400 law enforcement officers assisted with protest efforts.

“The duration of the DAPL protest and the extent of resources required have drained our local and state financial resources, particularly during a time of economic downturn in North Dakota,” Burgum wrote, arguing that the federal government bears “significant” responsibility for the protests.

Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II said last year that the militarization of local law enforcement and enlistment of agencies from other states was “needlessly escalating violence and unlawful arrests against peaceful protesters at Standing Rock.” In an October statement, he said the tribe didn’t condone reports of “illegal actions.”

Although the $3.8 billion oil pipeline is now in service, tribes continue to fight the project in court. They notched a victory last month when a federal judge said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn’t “adequately consider” the effects of an oil spill.

Meanwhile, the state applied for $13.85 million through the Emergency Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Program in late June. A federal spending bill announced two months ago included $15 million for the program.

“We hope to get the first $8 million to $10 million back here within a month,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “We’ll continue to work to do more.”

But Hoeven said the state shouldn’t expect the full $38 million to be covered by the federal government.

“I think it would be hard to get all that,” he said. “I think we will see some more, but I think we’ve got to temper expectations a little. The idea that we could go in and get $38 (million) and not have the state have any cost, I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”

The state Legislature authorized $38 million in loans from the state-owned bank to the Adjutant General to support “DAPL-related expenses,” said Bank of North Dakota spokeswoman Janel Schmitz. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said lawmakers turned to the bank with the idea that the federal government would reimburse the state.

“I still believe that they should pay for it all because it was on federal land and the federal government did nothing to make the protesters move,” he said. “However, we’ll be thankful for every dollar we get.”

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, pointed to the state’s recent budget woes -- lawmakers slashed general fund spending by more than 28 percent this year -- and argued federal action required a response from state and local agencies.

“It’s just not right that we have to absorb those costs,” he said. “We don’t have $38 million or $12 million or even $10 million laying around to cover these. That is the federal government’s responsibility.”

The state’s application for EFLEA program funding notes that the request for $13.85 million is only “a partial recovery” of its costs, and “the state continues to explore its options to obtain a more complete recovery.”

Nowatzki said they’re grateful for the funds the congressional delegation has secured so far, but “we do feel substantial additional reimbursement from the federal government is still warranted.” He said they didn’t have a specific dollar figure for that request.