On February 22, the Oceti Sakowin camp at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation was abandoned, following orders by North Dakota governor Doug Burgum to vacate by that date. The next day, 200 law enforcement officers raided the remains of Oceti Sakowin and an adjacent camp, “Rosebud”, arresting 46 protesters who refused to leave. By the end of the month, all three camps — Oceti, Rosebud and Sacred Stones — were empty.
Now the land, property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, must be cleaned up before the spring brings the threat of floodwaters, which could wash any debris down into the Missouri River, a scenario similar to that the protesters were trying to prevent.
The departing protesters have been criticized for the large amount of waste left behind in their exodus, as well as for clashes with law enforcement that sometimes turned violent.
“The DAPL individuals more claimed to be talking about how ‘water is life’, and ‘we need to protect the river’”, Dakota Student staff writer Dave Owen said in an opinion piece from March 3, “yet are ironically responsible for a large ecological disaster in the state.”
Alex Aman, co-founder of Sandbagger News, disagrees with Owen, feeling the mention of garbage left behind is used as a way to “bash” the Standing Rock camps, or discredit them.
“I do understand that, yes, trash is left behind, and if not cleaned, will enter the waterway,” Aman said, “(but) in order to open up the conversation, in order to raise awareness, in order to start building on the idea of changing our direction and our energy uses, that it was a byproduct of this movement.”
Aman had visited the Standing Rock campsites on several occasions, including a Thanksgiving trip to deliver donated food and warm clothing for the coming winter. He thinks that compared to university life, the amounts of waste produced are roughly the same, but the camps — which at one point hosted over 3,000 people — did not have the infrastructure to carry it away.
Assistant Professor Mark Trahant, who had also visited Standing Rock multiple times, stated that the protesters weren’t simply leaving junk in piles.
“Trash was being taken out,” Trahant said, “but not at a rate the state or tribe found acceptable.”
The sudden eviction may have contributed for the waste left behind.
The first camps had been erected in April 2016, as a protest against the proposed route of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would have passed underneath the Cannonball River, a tributary of the Missouri River. If ruptured, the freshwater source for millions of Americans could have been at risk.
In December 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers denied further construction of the pipeline until it finished an environmental impact survey; this was overturned by incumbent President Donald Trump, who ordered the Corps of Engineers to abandon the survey and proceed with construction via his executive order. The order also forwarded construction of the previously-cancelled Keystone XL pipeline.
Before departing, many protesters set fire to their lodgings as a form of ceremonial “cleansing”, denying law enforcement the opportunity to confiscate or destroy them. Two children were injured on the day of eviction, possibly due to these fires.
By January 2017, the cost of continual enforcement of the pipeline route exceeded $22 million, according to the Seattle Times. This included the blockade of North Dakota Highway 1086 and nearly 24/7 aerial reconnaissance of the campsites using light airplanes and helicopters (in violation of a “No Fly Zone” over the area since late October).
Since the eviction, construction on the Dakota Access pipeline continues at an accelerated pace, with the pipeline possibly coming into operation as early as the week of March 13, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Meanwhile, since the time the protests began, various pipeline ruptures across the United States leaked over 200,000 gallons of crude oil, 176,000 being from a 6-inch diameter pipeline in Billings County, North Dakota on Dec. 5; Dakota Access will have a diameter of 30-inches.
Connor Johnson is a staff writer for The Dakota Student. He can be reached at [email protected]