Legal dispute over cost of DAPL protest cleanup continues 3 years later

$38 million are at stake in suit filed by the state of North Dakota against the federal government.

Law enforcement stands off with #NoDAPL protesters on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, at the Backwater Bridge along Highway 1806. Photo via Morton County

BISMARCK — A federal judge in Bismarck heard arguments today from the state of North Dakota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a long-running dispute over the financial damages caused by protestors during construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The hearing, which addressed a motion by the federal government to dismiss the case, was the first major development since North Dakota filed a suit against the federal government a year ago.

The case, overseen by Judge Daniel M. Traynor of the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota, is a rehashing of a years-old dispute between the state of North Dakota and the federal government over the handling of the DAPL protests.

The state of North Dakota claims that the Army Corps is responsible for extensive property damage carried out over seven months of anti-DAPL protests near the pipeline's Lake Oahe crossing in 2016 and 2017. North Dakota estimates that the damage — including burned vehicles, millions of dollars in dumped garbage and an extensive law enforcement response — cost the state upwards of $38 million.

If the federal government is successful in dismissing North Dakota's case, the state will be left with no reimbursement for costs it sank in DAPL protest cleanup in the wake of the demonstrations.


The court's decision hinges on an intricate parsing of a few documents from the time of the protests, but much ambiguity revolves around the question of so-called "free speech zones," designated protest areas the corps established south of Lake Oahe in a letter to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in November 2016.

While federal enforcers were largely unsuccessful in relegating protesters to these free speech zones at the time, North Dakota alleges the corp's letter was tantamount to an "invitation" for protesters to use federally controlled land as a base to carry out "hit-and-run" attacks on the pipeline and nearby property.

"They not only allowed it, they invited, enabled and encouraged it," argued Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in an interview with The Forum ahead of Tuesday's hearing. "They put out press releases encouraging people to go to these free speech zones on their property."

The Army Corps insists the zones were a necessary tool for maintaining control over a heated situation with a swelling population of protesters.

The developing case in Bismarck is a sideshow to the other major DAPL lawsuit in Washington, where the Army Corps and Dakota Access recently appealed the decision of a federal judge to shut down pipeline operations pending an extensive environmental review.

At the end of a three-hour hearing Tuesday, Traynor said he would review the arguments of both sides and release his decision on the dismissal within a few weeks.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at

What To Read Next
Get Local