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Tribe chair pleads with protesters to return home for winter

MORTON COUNTY, N.D. -- The chair of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is asking pipeline opponents to return home. In a Tuesday, Dec. 6, letter to "water protectors," as the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters call themselves, Chairman Dave Archambault...

Oceti Sakowin camp is seen as "water protectors" continue to demonstrate against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, N.D., on Dec. 6, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
Oceti Sakowin camp is seen as "water protectors" continue to demonstrate against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, N.D., on Dec. 6, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

MORTON COUNTY, N.D. - The chair of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is asking pipeline opponents to return home.

In a Tuesday, Dec. 6, letter to "water protectors," as the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters call themselves, Chairman Dave Archambault II said he wants "each and every one of you to come up with a strategy to close and exit the camp," citing the oncoming winter and respecting the tribe's wishes.

"I respectfully ask that you leave the land as it was when you arrived, and return home before the winter grows more severe," Archambault said in the letter. "This storm is a glimpse of what is to come as temperatures are still not reaching the winter lows of this region. I understand that folks cannot go at this moment, but as soon as this current storm has passed, we must execute an exit strategy and continue our battles to protect water."

Archambault praised supporters' efforts and said it will be difficult, even under Donald Trump's administration, to reverse Sunday's decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to deny an easement to Energy Transfer Partners-the Texas-based company building the pipeline-to drill beneath the Missouri River to provide a crucial crossing for the near-complete infrastructure project.

"While this phase of the struggle relied largely on the protectors at camp, this next stage will be focused on the legal battles, and keeping the current decision in place," Archambault wrote.

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The letter comes a day after Archambault informally asked protesters to leave the camps as blizzard swept across North Dakota and closed most major roads statewide. By Tuesday afternoon, the temperature in Cannon Ball had dipped to 7 degrees as the National Weather Service extended its blizzard warning to 8 p.m. The weather service issued a forecast predicting falling temperatures, with lows of minus-2 on Wednesday night and minus-8 on Thursday night.

However, John Bigelow, head of the camp's media committee and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux, declared Monday that the protesters wouldn't be leaving the camp.

"As water protectors, we have a responsibility to be stewards of the water," Bigelow said during a Monday press conference. "We declare here today, we are not going anywhere."

But Archambault's letter on Tuesday reiterated his previous request.

"We deeply appreciate all the people who supported us with their presence, but when this storm passes, it is time to dismantle the camp and return to our homes," he said. "If the camp stays where it is currently located, people are risking their lives."

A statement from Energy Transfer Partners issued in response to the Corps decision stated the denial will not change its plans and the company will not consider rerouting the pipeline. The company requested in federal court to make oral arguments in its cross claim against the Corps.

In a motion for summary judgment, Dakota Access wants a U.S. District Court judge to declare that the Corps already authorized construction of the Lake Oahe crossing north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Attorneys for Dakota Access argue the Corps approved the crossing with its July 25, 2016, final environmental assessment but is "bowing to political pressure and the lawless acts of numerous protesters."

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Jan Hasselman, attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice that represents the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said the consequences to the company are their own fault for building the $3.8 billion pipeline on either side of the Missouri River without an easement to go under it.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said he thinks companies that planned to ship oil on Dakota Access will remain committed to the project despite the delay. The 1,172-mile pipeline will transport oil to Patoka, Ill., en route to refineries in the Gulf Coast.

In the meantime, more Bakken crude will continue being shipped by rail or truck, Ness said, noting Monday's winter weather in North Dakota made those methods riskier than shipping by pipeline.

Storm response

Early Tuesday, the North Dakota Department of Transportation sent snow plows to southern Morton County and cleared roadways to make a status check at the main camp, the county said in a news release.

Once there, camp leaders told Bureau of Indian Affairs representatives that they didn't need help, the release said.

Meanwhile, the North Dakota National Guard remains ready with six buses to help transport campers.

"The state of North Dakota and Morton County stand ready to support humanitarian assistance should a request be made, but at this time no formal request has been made from Standing Rock or the protest camps," North Dakota Department of Emergency Services Director Alan Dohrmann said in the release.

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Emergency shelters have been set up at Fort Yates High School and Prairie Nights Casino.

On Monday night, Morton County set up shelters at Flasher School and the Mandan Braves Center in Mandan for several stranded motorists. The release said two people went to Flasher and 25 others went to the Mandan Braves Center.

Additionally, a shelter opened in New Salem, where at least two dozen people stayed Monday night.

Hoeven presses

Also on Tuesdya, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he met with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Attorney General Nominee Senator Jeff Sessions to brief them on the Dakota Access Pipeline project and request their help. The senator also asked them to support sending additional resources and personnel to North Dakota to assist law enforcement with maintaining public safety.

"This situation needs to be resolved," Hoeven said. "By its inaction, the Obama administration has prolonged problem, making life more difficult for everyone involved. That's why I am speaking with the new administration to protect people and property and bring the protests to a peaceful end."

Also, earlier in the day, Hoeven met again with the Northwest Division Commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Major General Scott Spellmon to press for a resolution to the Dakota Access Pipeline issue. The senator asked the general to work with him to secure more federal law enforcement resources and funding to address unlawful protesters.

Following meetings Hoeven had with the Trump transition team, President-Elect Trump last week expressed his support for the project as well as for providing federal assistance to North Dakota, including additional resources and law enforcement personnel.

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