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North Dakota Bill Would Protect Motorists Who Accidentally Kill, Injure Protesters

Native American “water protectors” stand off against law enforcement over construction of the highly controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. (Photo: Twitter/Yes Magazine)

A North Dakota state lawmaker has introduced a bill that would exempt drivers from liability if they accidentally kill or injure a pedestrian, a measure its leading sponsor admits is a response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock.

The Bismarck Tribune reports the measure, House Bill 1203, was co-sponsored by Rep. Keith Kempenich (R-Bowman), who said it was about “shifting the burden of proof from the motor vehicle driver to the pedestrian.” Kempenich insisted the bill was needed because #NoDAPL demonstrators blocked or gathered near roadways, causing trouble for passing motorists. The lawmaker said a pipeline protester once jumped out in front of his mother-in-law, who was driving on a road in Morton County.

“They’re intentionally putting themselves in danger,” Kempenich said of the demonstrators, adding that public roads are “not there for the protesters.” He said a tragedy could occur if a motorist alarmed by protesters in the road “punched the accelerator rather than the brakes.”

However, critics questioned who the bill is really meant to protect. The largest donor to Kempenich’s 2014 reelection campaign was the North Dakota Petroleum Council; the third-largest contributor was Marathon Oil Corporation.

ABC News reports another North Dakota bill would make it a crime for adults to wear masks in most situations.

Pipeline protesters, and some Democratic state legislators, have voiced serious concern over the bills. “It’s shocking to see legislation that allows for people to literally be killed for exercising their right to protest in a public space,” Tara Houska, a Native American environmental activist who has been camped with #NoDAPL at Standing Rock since August, told NBC News. “These [bills] are meant to criminalize the protests with no real concern for constitutional law,” she added, calling the proposed laws “a direct violation of our First Amendment rights.”

“Knee-jerk legislation often is poor legislation,” state Rep. Marvin Nelson (D-Rolla), one of the few lawmakers who has visited #NoDAPL protesters, told ABC News.

The proposed North Dakota bills come at a crucial juncture for the #NoDAPL protesters, who call themselves water protectors. Although they won an indefinite reprieve last month when the Army Corps of Engineers denied Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas-based company funding the pipeline, an easement to construct under the Missouri River, the incoming Donald Trump administration backs the pipeline and has said it will complete the project. Trump has reportedly reduced his personal investment in Energy Transfer Partners from as much a $1 million in 2015 to between $15,000 and $50,000. The president-elect also reportedly owns as much as $250,000 in stock in Philipps 66, which owns a quarter of DAPL. The incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, former North Dakota governor John Hoeven, is a staunch pipeline supporter, as are key members of the Trump administration, many of whom claim they do not believe the overwhelming international scientific consensus that humans are causing and exacerbating climate change.

The #NoDAPL water protectors claim the pipeline threatens the region’s fresh water supply, desecrates sacred burial grounds, violates Native American treaty rights and, perhaps most importantly, fuels global warming. As thousands of #NoDAPL protesters gathered in Cannon Ball, North Dakota last year to stand with Standing Rock and block work on the pipeline, Native Americans and their allies were beaten, shot with “less lethal” projectiles that resulted in horrific injuries and mauled with dogs images of an attack dog with blood dripping from its teeth and snout shocked the conscience of the world and helped galvanize opposition to the pipeline.

Pipeline proponents argue DAPL will have significant economic benefits and would dramatically reduce crude oil shipments by rail, reducing horrific accidents like the July 6, 2013 Lac-Mégantic derailment in Quebec, Canada that killed 47 people. However, while the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) found there were twice as many oil train accidents as incidents involving pipelines from 2004 to 2012, the pipelines spilled three times as much oil as the trains.

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