A top boss at the firm building the Dakota Access pipeline has compared its opponents to terrorists. Pope Francis meanwhile has said indigenous groups must give prior consent to economic activity affecting their lands.
Joey Mahmoud - executive vice president of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners - said protesters have "assaulted numerous pipeline personnel," destroyed millions of dollars' worth of construction equipment and fired a pistol at law enforcement during months of demonstrations against the 1,200-mile pipeline.
The Trump administration is pushing to build a $3.8 billion oil pipelinedespite heavy opposition from Native Americans whose land is affected by the construction and its consequences.
Mahmoud said in written testimony to Congress that the protest movement "induced individuals to break into and shut down pump stations on four operational pipelines. Had these actions been undertaken by foreign nationals, they could only be described as acts of terrorism."
Mahmoud omitted the comment about terrorism as he read his testimony aloud to a House energy subcommittee Wednesday. The comment was included in written remarks submitted to the panel.
See you in court
The number of protesters at the camp on federal land near the pipeline route has fallen to a few hundred people as the battle over the project to move North Dakota oil to Illinois has largely moved into the courts.
A federal judge on Monday refused to stop construction on the last stretch of the pipeline, which could be operational as soon as next month.
US District Judge James Boasberg ruled that as long as oil isn't flowing through the pipeline, there is no imminent harm to the two tribes. Another hearing is scheduled on February 27.
Mahmoud, the pipeline executive, also attacked the Obama administration. "The Department of the Interior, and most likely senior members of the White House staff, interfered deeply and inappropriately in the waning stages of the regulatory process," he told lawmakers.
"Even a company as large as Energy Transfer is helpless in the face of a government which will neither obey nor enforce the law," he said.
Mahmoud also lambasted the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose reservation lies near the pipeline's route and who say the pipeline threatens their water supply and tribal artifacts.
The chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux, one of two tribes suing to stop the project, called Mahmoud's comments unfair.
"The majority of them are there in prayer," Chairman Harold Frazier said of pipeline opponents.
"From what I've seen (law enforcement officers) are the terrorists." Law enforcement has used tactics such as rubber bullets, tear gas and water sprays against protesters during clashes in southern North Dakota near the pipeline route, Frazier said, adding that he personally has been hit by rubber bullets and tear gas.
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said on Wednesday the state will help clean up the camp.
Officials said they fear the camp will soon flood and wash tons of debris into nearby waterways.
The Standing Rock Sioux began coordinating a cleanup in late January, but state officials say it isn't going fast enough.
Burgum says the state could start lining up additional contractors as early as Thursday. He says a decision on who would pay the cleanup cost can be made later.
The Army Corps of Engineers also plans to help with cleanup and will shut down the camp on February 22.
Capt. Ryan Hignight says Corps officials and a contractor will travel to the site this week to assess the situation. Actual cleanup work won't happen until the area is deemed safe.
Pope steps in
Pope Francis, meanwhile, met with representatives of indigenous peoples attending a UN agricultural meeting and said the key issue facing them is how to reconcile the right to economic development with protecting their cultures and territories.
"In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail," he said. "Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict."
Jbh/kl (AFP, AP)