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North Dakota seeks $38M in aid for pipeline protest bills

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota’s governor is asking President Donald Trump for federal reimbursement of $38 million in state law enforcement bills related to months of protests over construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.

Gov. Doug Burgum emailed Trump Saturday seeking a presidential disaster declaration to pave the way for federal aid. Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki confirmed the request to The Associated Press on Monday.

White House officials didn’t immediately comment on the likelihood of Trump declaring a disaster. Trump has been a champion of the fossil fuel industry and pushed for the completion of the disputed and stalled pipeline just days after taking office in January.

North Dakota’s two senators, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican John Hoeven, have said a $1 trillion spending bill that Congress is considering includes money for a Justice Department program that could help with North Dakota’s bills. But any reimbursement through that program is likely to make only a small dent.

North Dakota’s costs resulted from about six months of protests against the $3.8 billion pipeline built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners to move North Dakota oil to Illinois. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of opponents camped in southern North Dakota, often clashing with police and National Guard soldiers who set up a staging area nearby that morphed into a small village. There were 761 arrests in the region between early August and late February.

The Legislature and Burgum recently approved borrowing money to fund the protest response, but that money would have to be repaid by state taxpayers. State officials and North Dakota’s congressional delegation have long pushed for federal reimbursement to avoid that.

“The DAPL protest is the first time the state of North Dakota has experienced civil unrest of this magnitude,” Burgum said in his lengthy letter to Trump. He added that the protest “was of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.”

The Justice Department’s Emergency Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Program might be an option for some of the costs, according to Heitkamp and Hoeven. The bipartisan, $1.1 trillion government-wide spending bill that’s before Congress this week includes $15 million for the program.

The money would be for law enforcement emergencies nationwide in fiscal 2016 and 2017, meaning if North Dakota applied the state likely would have to compete for money, and any grant amount likely would be relatively small. Examples of past grants include $2.7 million after Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989, and about $625,000 during the Waco standoff in Texas in 1993.

It still could be “a critical and needed step forward,” Heitkamp said, though she acknowledged “we still have more to do.”

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