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A trio of excavators move earth along the Dakota Access pipeline route east of Williston in late July. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Highway near pipeline remains closed; judge denies emergency injunction

MORTON COUNTY, N.D. – Dakota Access LLC expects to introduce oil into the pipeline north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation early next week, the company said in court filings.

Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, said the company anticipates crews will install the pipe under Lake Oahe this week and begin final testing, according to a status update filed in federal court.

The company projects that oil may be introduced into the portion of the pipeline near Cannon Ball between Monday, March 20, and Wednesday, March 22, depending on the success of the testing, documents show.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg on Tuesday, March 14, denied a request by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe for an emergency injunction to prevent oil from flowing through part of the Dakota Access Pipeline, saying such a move would be against the public interest.

Last week, Boasberg also denied a request from Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Standing Rock Sioux to halt construction of the pipeline. The tribes argued the pipeline violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

An attorney for Dakota Access questioned in court documents why the tribe waited until the pipeline was nearly complete to raise the religion argument, calling it a “last-gasp litigation tactic.”

Native American tribes plan to keep fighting Dakota Access in court even if the pipeline goes into service next week.

Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said last week the judge has not yet ruled on other legal challenges, such as whether it was unlawful for the Trump administration to authorize construction of the Lake Oahe crossing without first completing the environmental impact statement ordered by the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, Morton County officials will talk Wednesday, March 15, about plans for a phased reopening of state Highway 1806, which has been closed north of Cannon Ball since late October when the Backwater Bridge was damaged during protests.

Currently, Highway 1806 is closed from Fort Rice to the Highway 24 intersection, requiring motorists to take a detour to access the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation from Bismarck-Mandan.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation completed initial repair work on the Backwater Bridge on Feb. 13. The department will do more through repairs to the road surface during the summer construction season.

Local community leaders have been pushing for the highway to reopen, citing the closure’s impact to the economy and access to medical services.

In a letter to Gov. Doug Burgum, the Rev. John Floberg of St. James Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball wrote that the closure is harming Prairie Knights Casino, an “economic engine” for the reservation that funds programs for children.

“This is economic retaliation against some of the state’s poorest residents,” Floberg wrote to Burgum, calling on him to open the highway immediately.

A contractor has completed cleaning the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps on land managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Morton County spokeswoman Maxine Herr said crews were continuing Tuesday to scrape snow and mud off Highway 1806 and collecting debris from ditches, with most of the work occurring south of the bridge near the former protest camps.

Dakota Access crews had some water trucks and equipment on part of Highway 1806 while the road was closed, Herr said. The company has since removed the equipment off the road and is storing it on property owned by the company, Herr said.

Burgum is expected to participate in the discussions Wednesday about reopening the highway.

Last week, Morton County said a phased reopening of the highway may involve a pilot car or checkpoint to keep a reduced speed limit.

Reuters contributed to this report