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Heinrich, Udall appeal to Obama on Dakota pipeline protest

Dakota Access pipeline protesters defy law enforcement officers who are trying to force them from a camp on private land in the path of pipeline construction on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, near Cannon Ball, N.D. The months-long dispute over the four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline reached a crisis point when the protesters set up camp on land owned by pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners. The disputed area is just to the north of a more permanent and larger encampment on federally-owned land where hundreds of protesters have camped for months. (AP Photo/James MacPherson)

Dakota Access pipeline protesters defy law enforcement officers who are trying to force them from a camp on private land in the path of pipeline construction on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, near Cannon Ball, N.D. The months-long dispute over the four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline reached a crisis point when the protesters set up camp on land owned by pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners. The disputed area is just to the north of a more permanent and larger encampment on federally-owned land where hundreds of protesters have camped for months. (AP Photo/James MacPherson)

New Mexico’s U.S. senators today wrote separate letters to President Barack Obama asking him intervene in a potential confrontation between Dakota Access Pipeline protesters and the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which has given protesters an early December deadline for dispersing from the protest site.

Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both Democrats, urged caution in dealing with the protesters today. Udall is set to become the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in January.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has set a Dec. 5 deadline for American Indians and others to leave an encampment in North Dakota where they’ve been entrenched for months protesting the Dakota Access pipeline. In his letter, Heinrich asked Obama to “overturn” the date.

“I question the decision to close the area to demonstrators on December 5, 2016,” Heinrich wrote. “This arbitrary date is certain to escalate an already volatile situation and I would urge you to overturn this decision by the Corps of Engineers.  I ask that you seek a peaceful resolution to this conflict that respects the desire of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to protect their water and historic sacred sites.”

Tribes including the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux are fighting the Dakota Access project because they fear it will harm drinking water and cultural sites. Texas-based pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners says the 1,200-mile pipeline through the Dakotas, Iowa and Illinois will be safe.

“I am gravely concerned about the recent escalation of violence in North Dakota against members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and those standing in solidarity with them,” Heinrich’s letter said.

Heinrich also decried “the brutality we’ve seen in recent days involving rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons” used against protesters by law enforcement.

Udall asked Obama to consider tribal concerns.

“The route of this pipeline was changed at least once in response to water pollution concerns from the Bismarck, ND area,” Udall wrote. “Tribal members across the country are thus very concerned that the new river crossing location was chosen without equal consideration of tribal environmental concerns.  As we all know, tribal rights and interests have taken a back seat for far too long in our nation.  Thankfully, few Presidents have done as much as you to reverse that tragic historical trend.  I trust that you are considering every available option, including altering the pipeline route, to respond to the Standing Rock Sioux’s concerns.”

Udall also voiced worry about the Dec. 5 deadline.

“The Army Corps and the State of North Dakota have instructed people to leave this camp to an alternative area, and the State is also sending mixed signals about blocking food and supplies, raising tensions yet further,” Udall said. “Forcible removal of people from federal land where they have been allowed to camp, along with food blockades, would be serious mistakes.  There are reportedly several thousand people in total at various camp sites.  I believe your administration needs to engage with state, local and tribal authorities to ensure that appropriate emergency and planning actions are taken in a coordinated fashion to ensure the safety and public health of the peaceful protesters.”

Here’s Udall’s letter in full:

Dear President Obama:

I write to urge your renewed personal attention to the pressing issues surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline.  These include both the review process to better address tribal concerns and the safety and civil rights of the people who have gathered peacefully to exercise their First Amendment rights.  As the incoming Vice Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in the next Congress, and the senator representing a number of tribes attending or supporting the protest, I fear the dispute over this pipeline may negatively impact federal-Tribal relations more broadly going forwards if we cannot find a respectful resolution to Tribal concerns.

Along with many of my New Mexico Tribal constituents, I appreciated the action of your Administration on September 9, 2016 to pause construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Lake Oahe in light of the important issues regarding consultation and the protection of water raised by the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes.  With regards to Dakota Access, I understand the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reconsideration process is still ongoing, and I urge a positive resolution soon that can provide the Tribe with much greater assurances that its water will be protected from the risk of oil spills. 

Importantly, the route of this pipeline was changed at least once in response to water pollution concerns from the Bismarck, ND area.  Tribal members across the country are thus very concerned that the new river crossing location was chosen without equal consideration of Tribal environmental concerns.  As we all know, Tribal rights and interests have taken a back seat for far too long in our nation.  Thankfully, few Presidents have done as much as you to reverse that tragic historical trend.  I trust that you are considering every available option, including altering the pipeline route, to respond to the Standing Rock Sioux’s concerns.

Since your Administration’s September announcement, the demonstrations have grown, and there have been far too many dangerous violent confrontations between protesters and state and local law enforcement, with serious injuries resulting. One of those seriously injured was a Navajo woman, who was shot in the face with a rubber bullet. The vast majority of the demonstrators are peaceful, in line with Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s position. 

As a former Attorney General of the State of New Mexico, I have the highest respect for law enforcement members who work to protect and serve the public, and I recognize this situation has posed unique challenges for them.  However, on several occasions, the law enforcement response has appeared overly militarized and to violate civil rights, including the use of military equipment. Besides rubber bullets, they have employed water cannons in cold temperatures, and engaged in roadblocks and strip searches, and arrested and detained journalists.  Tribe sought the intervention of the U.S. Department of Justice in October, and I am enclosing their letter.  I strongly urge the Department of Justice (DOJ) to respond to the Tribe’s request to investigate any potential civil rights violations, where appropriate. While I understand that DOJ has sent personnel to the area to be in contact with both law enforcement and tribal leaders to try to defuse tensions and ensure constitutional policing, these efforts need to be redoubled in the future to ensure public safety as key decisions approach.

Another worrying factor is the largest campsite, known as Oceti Sakowin, is now home to a great number of people and the cold North Dakota winter is here.  The Army Corps and the State of North Dakota have instructed people to leave this camp to an alternative area, and the State is also sending mixed signals about blocking food and supplies, raising tensions yet further.  Forcible removal of people from federal land where they have been allowed to camp, along with food blockades, would be serious mistakes.  There are reportedly several thousand people in total at various camp sites.  I believe your Administration needs to engage with state, local and tribal authorities to ensure that appropriate emergency and planning actions are taken in a coordinated fashion to ensure the safety and public health of the peaceful protesters.

I deeply appreciate many positive actions and steps that you and your Administration have taken to benefit Indian Country during your time in office.  If I can be of any assistance to you or your Administration on this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Tom Udall

United States Senator

Here is Heinrich’s letter in full:

I am gravely concerned about the recent escalation of violence in North Dakota against members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and those standing in solidarity with them.  When violent confrontations first occurred earlier this fall, I urged your administration to step in and was thankful that you quickly put a halt to the project until the agencies could engage in renewed tribal consultation with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

However, the brutality we’ve seen in recent days involving rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons, has increasingly put the health and lives of the demonstrators at real risk. The current situation at Camp Oceti Sakowin is unsustainable and dangerous to everyone involved.  I implore you to work with the Corps of Engineers and the Department of Justice to de-escalate the violence at the camp.

In particular, I question the decision to close the area to demonstrators on December 5, 2016.  This arbitrary date is certain to escalate an already volatile situation and I would urge you to overturn this decision by the Corps of Engineers.  I ask that you seek a peaceful resolution to this conflict that respects the desire of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to protect their water and historic sacred sites.

Thank you for your continued commitment to the needs and concerns of Indian Country and for your attention to this urgent issue.

Sincerely,

MARTIN HEINRICH

United States Senator

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