On December 4th, the US Army ruled that the Dakota Access Pipeline, planned to run underneath the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s water source, would not be allowed to cross the Missouri River. In the wake of the decision, community leaders and authorities encouraged protesters — who prefer to be called water protectors — to claim their victory, and disband. Yet many still remain, camping on the river’s edge, worried that the pipeline operator might ignore the order to halt construction. They point to a concrete and razor-wire barricade that has become a focal point for the community here as a sign that their fight is not yet won.
“It cuts us off from the shortest route to major hospitals and other emergency services.”
The barricade stands on the Backwater Bridge between the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota and the closest big city. Massive concrete blocks typically used to wall off lanes of traffic span the bridge’s northern end, linked with razor wire and lit by floodlights. More blocks run lengthwise down the the snow-covered bridge, askew where a white car plowed into them. The car is still there.
The county sheriff’s department erected the barricade at the end of October, ostensibly because the Backwater Bridge had been damaged by fires during protests against the pipeline. The roadblock is now nearly two months old, and it continues to choke travel in and out of the reservation and protest camps. The state has started taking steps to remove it, but it could be at least another month before the barricade is taken down. That means another month of delays and detours on snow-slicked roads as people travel from the camps to get supplies, or reach hospitals.
At the end of November, the former governor of North Dakota, Jack Dalrymple, called for a mandatory evacuation of the camps. That’s why the roadblock is such a problem — because part of that evacuation order also restricted state agencies from providing emergency services to those remaining in the camps for the winter. The order still stands under North Dakota’s new governor, Doug Burgum, who took office on December 15th — according to the governor’s communications director Mike Nowatzki. What this means is that protesters who need urgent medical care will need to leave the camps under their own power to find it — and the fastest route to care is blockaded.
“This blockade has been a serious issue for our people as it cuts us off from the shortest route to major hospitals and other emergency services,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman, Dave Archambault II, said in a statement issued on December 14th. (Standing Rock has a small Indian Health Service hospital, but it only has 12 beds.) “The closure has also substantially damaged our reservation economy,” he added.
Massive concrete blocks span the bridge’s northern end, linked with razor wire and lit by floodlights.
It’s not clear exactly how much time the roadblock adds to a trip to, say, a hospital in Bismarck, North Dakota. Spokespeople with the Morton County sheriff’s department and highway patrol say it adds a 10 to 15 minute detour for the people in the encampments. Google Maps says about 20 minutes. But Paul Freeman and a water protector who would only be identified as Cempoalli Twenny are both currently living in the Oceti Sakowin camp, and they disagree. They estimate that the barricade adds another 45 minutes to an hour to a trip to Bismarck — or longer, in bad weather conditions.
“It’s pretty obvious what they’re doing here,” says Twenny. “They’re dragging their feet here on purpose, and it goes to show you that they’re protecting the oil companies.”
Law enforcement closed the bridge because they say it may have been structurally damaged when two trucks on its northern side were set on fire during protests on October 27th. Earlier that day, police attempted to remove water protectors from private property — using pepper spray, as well as tasers, rubber bullets, and sound canons, according to an eyewitness account in Mother Jones. They arrested 141 people, and drove 5-ton military surplus trucks onto the bridge as a barricade, says Maxine Herr, a spokesperson with the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. Those trucks were then set on fire, and the sheriff’s department erected the current barricade.
“They’re dragging their feet here on purpose.”
Since that barricade went up, the bridge has continued to be the site of ongoing conflicts between water protectors and local law enforcement. In November, footage surfaced of police spraying hoses at water protectors packed onto the bridge in sub-freezing temperatures. Police reportedly fired rubber bullets and percussion grenades at the water protectors, and one protester’s arm was severely injured.
Herr maintains that the protesters brought the barricade and its associated problems on themselves. “We wouldn’t have to close the bridge if protesters had not burned the vehicles and started fires on the bridge. The bridge is closed because of the protesters’ actions,” Herr says. “Now they probably regret that action because they have a longer trip into Bismarck/Mandan — but that is not the fault of law enforcement.”
However, the trucks themselves formed a roadblock, even before they were burned. In fact, Herr also said, “We are trying to create a barrier between the protesters and that private property.” She adds that the private property across the bridge is owned by the pipeline operator.
The bridge cannot be reopened until the state’s Department of Transportation deems it safe, Herr says. But it’s unusual for the Department of Transportation to be called out to inspect a bridge because of a car fire, says Jamie Olson, a spokesperson with the DoT. “Usually the damage that we’re inspecting on bridges is as a result of a truck hitting a support beam, or something like that,” Olson says. But, she adds, this bridge is unusual itself in that it’s not supported by beams, so damage to the driving surface could destabilize it.
“So when the fires occurred on that, I guess what we were worried about was that the structural integrity of that bridge was damaged,” she says. “So that’s why we inspect that.” There was a preliminary inspection on November 1, but the department determined the bridge needed more testing. That testing began Thursday, and it could take another 30 days for results about the bridge’s condition to come back from an out-of-state lab, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
The DoT says the reason why it took so long to begin the additional testing is that they were waiting for the sheriff’s department to give them the go ahead. “[Law enforcement] indicated to us that our inspection will have to wait until they can ensure that it will be safe for those inspectors,” Olson says.
“We are trying to create a barrier between the protesters and that private property.”
Twenny disputes that there was any danger to the inspectors: “No, their safety is a priority for us too,” he says. “We want that bridge cleared as well.” He adds that he and his fellow water protectors are not trouble makers, or outlaws — they’re just there to protect the water.
Cold weather also prevented the inspection from going forward until now, Nowatzki adds. It had been too cold to run the water-cooled drills needed to take core samples from the bridge, he says. And now that the weather has warmed somewhat, that inspection was able take place. Nowatzki says it could take up to 30 days to receive the results.
Former governor Dalrymple, who recently left office, and the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe met on December 12th. They agreed that reopening the bridge will be an important step towards repairing the relationship between the two governments. At a second meeting between Archambault and Governor Burgum on December 19th, the two leaders reaffirmed that commitment.