When the first big snow hit the protest encampments of Standing Rock this winter, campers hunkered down and tried to last out the storm. They woke the next morning to two feet of snow. Everything was buried: tents and sleeping bags, but also ad-hoc kitchens, latrines, propane tanks, living quarters and waste, gathered over the months of protests.
Hundreds fled that morning. And they took little of what they brought with them. Now acres of camp has turned into mountains of trash, and Morton County North Dakota leaders are worried the trash could become its own environmental disaster.
The camps were built on a flood plain. Each spring, when snows start to melt, the Cannonball River — named for such swift current it pushes boulders along its bottom until they are as smooth and as round as cannon balls — rises over its banks and scours the plains below.
If left, all of that trash could get pushed right into the Missouri River, the very body of water the protesters are working to protect.
Morton County and the Standing Rock Sioux are now urgently loading dump trucks with trash. But county Emergency Manager Tom Doering said he’s not sure they’ll get it all cleaned up before the thaw — one contractor estimated total trash at 250 30-cubic-yard dumpsters.
And when the Cannonball floods, it will send ice chunks three feet thick, 20 feet across through the floodplains.
“We’re really fighting the clock,” Doering said.
Some worry the West Texas camps could face similar problems.
“It should be concerning to any local community that a professional protest camp can leave behind such a huge mess,” said Steve Everley, spokesman for Texans for Natural Gas, an industry-funded coalition that has been outspoken against the pipeline protests. “Communities in West Texas need to know about that, especially since several of the protesters out there have traveled from North Dakota. Are they going to bring the same mess?”
But Frankie Orona, a camp organizer, said leaders have learned from the mistakes at Standing Rock. The camp at Two Rivers near Big Bend Ranch State Park, for instance, has composting toilets, running well water, solar-heated showers, a solar-powered kitchen and weekly trash removal to avoid build-up.
“We’ve been pretty good about maintaining it,” Orona said. “We knew it could be a problem.”