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Pipeline protest costs to reach 'double-digit millions,' emergency spokeswoman says

Dakota Access Pipeline opponents form a human roadblock on State Highway 1806 after negotiations between protesters and authorities hit an impasse Wednesday near Cannon Ball, N.D. Photo by Mike Nowatzki / Forum News Service1 / 2
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BISMARCK—North Dakota has spent more than $6 million responding to a pipeline protest in Morton County, and with no end in sight, the final bill could present an eight-digit figure, an emergency services spokeswoman said Thursday.

"It's going to be in double-digit millions," said Cecily Fong, a public information officer for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.

Fong said early Thursday her department plans to ask the state Emergency Commission next week, possibly Tuesday, for more money to fund law enforcement and emergency response efforts during the Dakota Access Pipeline protest north of Cannon Ball, N.D.. It's unknown how much money the department will ask for, she said.

More than 260 people had been arrested as of Wednesday since protesters began gathering in August at a camp in Morton County to oppose the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, but the number of arrests was expected to climb Thursday as a standoff between law enforcement and protesters escalated into a confrontation.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple has been monitoring the situation on a daily basis, said Jeff Zent, a spokesman for the governor's office. It's hard to say how long the protests could last and when a resolution would come, Zent said, but there are funds available to handle emergency situations such as the one in Morton County.

"Would we rather be able to use this funding elsewhere? Absolutely," Zent said. "But the fact remains we have an emergency situation that must be addressed."

The National Guard and law enforcement from multiple agencies in North Dakota and from other states, including Minnesota, have been sent to the protests to aid the Morton County Sheriff's Department. In September, the North Dakota Emergency Commission borrowed $6 million from the state-owned Bank of North Dakota to cover protest-related costs, including salaries for officers as well as equipment and supplies. The money would cover costs incurred by both North Dakota and out-of-state agencies.

The Emergency Services Department is working on a document to break down what has been spent so far on the protests. Ahead of Thursday's developments — which included more arrests, an additional blockade and bonfires — Fong originally estimated the state had spent $5.75 million, but those figures likely have exceeded the original $6 million borrowed, she said.

Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access project, proposed the pipeline should cross the Missouri River north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation as it carries oil from the Bakken in northwest North Dakota to Illinois. "Water protectors," as the protesters have called themselves, want the construction of the pipeline halted, citing fears the pipeline could pollute the river if damaged.

This week, a roadblock set up by protesters closed N.D. Highway 1806, and pipeline opponents have formed a 200-person "frontline" camp, calling it their "no surrender line." As negotiations to remove the roadblock and camp broke down, law enforcement moved in to remove the protesters and dismantle the camp.

Zent said the main goal is to keep everyone safe during the protests.

"We're committed to do whatever it takes to meet that," he said. "The bottom line is, we cannot allow for our highways to be taken over. We cannot allow for our highway right of ways to be taken over and we cannot allow for trespassing on private land."

Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said law enforcement members have the resources and manpower to end the protests any time but stressed they don't want a confrontation, adding Thursday agencies are trying to move forward without escalating the situation.

When asked if Dalrymple would order law enforcement to remove protesters by force, Zent said he didn't know how to answer that other than to say Dalrymple has been monitoring the situation on a daily basis.

"He is working with our law enforcement officials and the National Guard," Zent said of Dalrymple. "He is very appreciative of law enforcement's handling (of the protests). We are all on the same page as to what our mission is, and that is to protect everyone's safety."

North Dakota has been hit with budget cuts after oil and agricultural commodity prices plummeted over the past two years, resulting in a sharp decline in revenue for the state.

Despite the budget woes North Dakota has faced, Fong was confident the state shouldn't face problems meeting the financial demand to handle the protests.

"I'm not a budget analyst ... but I don't foresee it being a problem," she said.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015. She works with a team of talented journalists and editors, who strive to give the Grand Forks area the quality news readers deserve to know. Baumgarten grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college,  she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

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