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Stenehjem files $38 million claim over DAPL response

BISMARCK — North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem filed a $38 million claim against the federal government Friday, July 20, marking another effort by state leaders to recover costs associated with the monthslong Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

Stenehjem blamed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its “outright abdication of federal law enforcement responsibility” that “required North Dakota to provide a sustained, large-scale public safety response.” He argued the Corps didn’t enforce requirements for permits that protesters would need to “conduct organized activities on federal lands” and failed to “eject or control the protesters.”

Three main protest camps were located on Corps-managed land near the oil pipeline’s Lake Oahe crossing, Stenehjem said in his claim. The protests, which at times escalated into violent confrontations with police, attracted thousands.  

“If (the Corps) would have taken action at the very beginning, it would have never mushroomed into the massive problem that it did,” Stenehjem, a Republican, said in an interview. He said the claim has been in the works since March 2017, shortly after the main protest camp was cleared.

The claim was filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which makes the federal government liable for “negligent and other wrongful conduct to the same extent a private person would be liable under state law,” according to a news release from Stenehjem’s office. If it’s not paid or settled in six months, the state could sue in federal court to recover damages.

An Army Corps spokesman deferred to the U.S. Department of Justice, which declined to comment. Each member of the state’s congressional delegation welcomed Stenehjem’s efforts, with Republican Sen. John Hoeven taking the Corps and “other federal officials” to task for not enforcing the law.

The protests began in August 2016 and stemmed from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s concerns that the oil pipeline threatened its drinking water and sacred sites. The $3.8 billion line from oil-rich western North Dakota to Illinois was spearheaded by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners and began service in June 2017.

President Donald Trump declined Gov. Doug Burgum’s request for a major disaster declaration last year. In a letter to the president, Burgum said officers made 761 arrests in eight months, while about 1,400 law enforcement officers assisted with protest efforts.

Stenehjem said North Dakota’s claim also includes environmental cleanup costs.

“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 in his April 2017 letter to Trump, arguing that the federal government bears “significant” responsibility for the protests.

A few months after Trump’s denial, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded North Dakota $10 million to help cover protest costs, and the pipeline’s developer later donated $15 million to the state.

“Our claim is for $38 million and if they want to claim some kind of an offset, we can talk about it,” Stenehjem said. But he argued the Corps “is not entitled to take advantage of a gift that DAPL provided to the state of North Dakota.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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