"Whenever the next struggle heats up and takes off, then we will swell our ranks to meet the demand," said Frances Madeson, spokeswoman for the Water Protector Legal Collective . "Water protector" is what many pipeline opponents called themselves because they fear a spill could contaminate water supplies.
Thousands of Native Americans and others who feared environmental harm from the $3.8 billion pipeline built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners came to southern North Dakota in 2016 and 2017 to protest, resulting in hundreds of arrests over a six-month span and nearly 850 criminal cases in state court. The pipeline that ETP maintains is safe has been moving North Dakota oil to Illinois since June 2017.
The nonprofit legal team, which formed in a tent at a protest camp, grew to 31 attorneys from around the country who donated tens of thousands of hours over the past 2 ½ years to help defendants in those cases, most of which have been dismissed or resolved through plea agreements.
The last of about 70 scheduled trials ended Tuesday, with Katrina Silk of Mitchell, South Dakota, convicted of misdemeanor obstruction of a government function but acquitted of four other misdemeanors, including rioting. She was given two months of unsupervised probation and ordered to pay $325 in court fees.
The Water Protector Legal Collective, which raised and spent about $2 million on Dakota Access-related work, considers the job finished.
"We set a tone with the state's attorney's office that they were going to have a serious fight on their hands, and we have never let up that pressure," said board President Daniel T'seleie.
The collective, funded entirely through grants and donations, maintains an office in Bismarck with five full-time staff members. It is governed by a volunteer board of directors that currently has seven members.
The organization is talking with tribes who are preparing to protest in South Dakota against the $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline , which TransCanada Corp. is planning to build to move Canadian crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The legal group also is planning to meet with a tribe in Texas that opposes a U.S.-Mexico border wall proposed by Trump .
"The mass arrests at Standing Rock may not have been the largest in the U.S. history of repression, but they are among the most significant, both in the lives of the individual water protectors like myself, but also for the future of indigenous-centered environmental struggles," T'seleie said.
In addition to the state-level Dakota Access cases that have been resolved, there are several pipeline- and protest-related lawsuits ongoing in federal court. They include a challenge to the pipeline itself by four Sioux tribes in the Dakotas, a racketeering lawsuit ETP filed against environmental groups and activists, and a lawsuit against law officers and other authorities over alleged civil rights violations that the defendants deny. That lawsuit, which the legal collective is involved in, has lingered since November 2016.
"We are determined to press on for justice, no matter how long it takes," said legal collective board member Rachel Lederman, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
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