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Possibly damaged bridge examined for safety

MANDAN, N.D.--A razor-wired barricade with a snow-swept, forbidding appearance between the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and Mandan could be dismantled if it turns out a bridge is undamaged from the Dakota Access Pipeline protest.

Indian Affairs Commissioner Scott Davis says work to reopen the Backwater Bridge over Cantapeta Creek is a message that relations can also be repaired following protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo by Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune
Indian Affairs Commissioner Scott Davis says work to reopen the Backwater Bridge over Cantapeta Creek is a message that relations can also be repaired following protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo by Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune

MANDAN, N.D.-A razor-wired barricade with a snow-swept, forbidding appearance between the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and Mandan could be dismantled if it turns out a bridge is undamaged from the Dakota Access Pipeline protest.

The Backwater Bridge spanning Cantapeta Creek was closed Oct. 27 during a sweep of pipeline protesters and after a vehicle was set on fire, smoldering for hours on the north end.

Thursday, the State Highway Department cleared snow of the bridge decking, ground off the pavement and drilled cores of concrete to determine whether there's any structural damage from the fire. It has been less than a month since an armed police guard was pulled back from the bridge location.

Work started at about 9 a.m., observed by the Department of Transportation and by officials from Standing Rock, but bridge engineer John Ketterling said it could be a month before the lab analysis is done, even with an accompanying rush order.

"If it's not stable, the next steps for repairs, the timeframe is unknown," Ketterling said. "What we want to know is if it's affected the load-carrying capacity of the beams."

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Despite the unknowns, state Commissioner of Indian Affairs Scott Davis said the work to get the bridge reopened is a good step. It follows months of tension between the pipeline protesters camped less than one-half mile away and Morton County Sheriff Department-led law enforcement. The conflict centered around construction of the pipeline, which protesters say could pollute the tribe's drinking water if there's a break in the Missouri River crossing just north of the reservation and harm sacred sites.

The closed bridge and lack of access to Highway 1806 going north from the reservation has been an inconvenience and a symbol of a situation that's been hard to cross on all sides.

"We've had damaged relations and a damaged bridge. The damage to the bridge is temporary, and today we're here to begin fixing it, and, in the comings days, weeks and months, we can work on fixing our relations," Davis said. "This is a bridge of peace and relationships."

Continued talks, like one this week between Gov. Doug Burgum and Standing Rock tribal officials, will help, according to Davis.

"We'll find more ways to deescalate," he said.

The bridge separates the pipeline route, which is surrounded by miles of razor wire and security, and the Oceti Sakowin camp, occupied by as many as 10,000 people at the peak of the prayer and protest activities.

Tribal councilman Frank White Bull said about 700 to 900 people remain there, based on a count earlier this week, going from tent to tent and other dwellings around the encampment.

White Bull said he was pleased to see the work at the bridge.

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"I think it's a step forward for normalcy, a cooperative effort with the state and a plus for us and the community," said White Bull, adding the roadblocks by law enforcement earlier in the protest were less controversial. "Once they closed the bridge, that's when everybody got offended," White Bull said.

Ron His Horse Is Thunder, a former tribal chairman, said a reopened bridge will finally get people off the Highway 6 detour and back onto a highway with quicker access to emergency and commercial traffic.

His Horse Is Thunder said he's hopeful the bridge doesn't need to be torn apart for repairs and add to the extended inconvenience. He said he supports the ongoing presence of people in the protest camps.

"I think there still should be a presence to remind people. I'm glad they're here," he said.

Snow-swept and desolate, the forbidding look at Backwater Bridge could be a thing of the past, depending on whether the bridge can be reopened following a damage assessment Thursday. The bridge symbolizes a divide created during the Dakota Access Pipeline protest. Photo by Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune
Snow-swept and desolate, the forbidding look at Backwater Bridge could be a thing of the past, depending on whether the bridge can be reopened following a damage assessment Thursday. The bridge symbolizes a divide created during the Dakota Access Pipeline protest. Photo by Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune

Related Topics: DAKOTA ACCESS PIPELINE
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