Two members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and a reservation priest are suing over a five-month shutdown of a North Dakota highway during protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline, saying the closure violated their and others’ constitutional rights.
The lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court seeks unspecified monetary damages from the state, Morton County and TigerSwan, a North Carolina-based company that oversaw private security for the Texas-based pipeline developer, Energy Transfer Partners. It also asks the judge to implement stricter rules for road closures in such instances and seeks class-action status, meaning it would apply to all affected people if granted.
Protests against the pipeline that moves North Dakota oil to Illinois drew thousands of people to southern North Dakota during construction in 2016 and 2017. ETP maintains that the pipeline, which began operating in June 2017, is safe, but opponents fear it will harm the environment. They camped just north of the Standing Rock reservation and many clashed with police, resulting in 761 arrests during a six-month span.
State officials blocked off a stretch of state Highway 1806 just north of the camps in October 2016 after a bridge was damaged by fires during one clash. The bridge was deemed structurally sound in January 2017, but authorities didn’t reopen it for two more months, after initial repairs were completed and the protest camps were shut down.
The highway is the main route between the reservation and Bismarck, the nearest large city. Plaintiffs allege that the shutdown was targeted directly at them and did not apply to pipeline workers.
“Defendants intentionally made travel to and from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the camps near the Cannonball River as unnecessarily unpleasant and dangerous as possible so as to deter (pipeline opponents), with whom they disagree, from lawfully pursuing their constitutional rights to travel, assemble, pray and express their viewpoints,” plaintiffs’ attorney Noah Smith-Drelich said in court documents.
Officials with the state attorney general’s office and the governor’s office said they hadn’t yet been served with the lawsuit and weren’t aware of it. Morton County declined to comment through its spokeswoman, citing the open case.
TigerSwan spokesman Wesley Fricks said the lawsuit’s claims that the company helped enforce the highway closure are “baseless” because “only the state and local authorities have the authority to close a road.”
“We further note the fact that Highway 1806 was first closed by the protesters themselves when they illegally constructed a blockade across the road,” he said.
The three plaintiffs are reservation businesswoman Cissy Thunderhawk, pipeline opponent Waste’Win Young and the Rev. John Floberg, priest at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball. They’re suing Morton County, its sheriff, the state’s governor and the governor at the time of the shutdown, and the heads of the state Transportation Department and the Highway Patrol.