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Dakota Access pipeline protesters block freeway in Bellingham

#noDAPL protesters block Interstate 5 in Bellingham

Protesters blocked Interstate 5 northbound at Lakeway for more than an hour Saturday, Feb. 11, demonstrating over the Tuesday announcement by the U.S. Department of the Army to grant easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Traffic backed up 4 mil
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Protesters blocked Interstate 5 northbound at Lakeway for more than an hour Saturday, Feb. 11, demonstrating over the Tuesday announcement by the U.S. Department of the Army to grant easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Traffic backed up 4 mil

Around 100 demonstrators blocked the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 for about an hour Saturday afternoon to protest the latest progress for the Dakota Access pipeline, causing a traffic jam 4 miles long and at least one injury from a rollover crash, officials said.

Protesters used cars to slowly bring traffic to a stop just south of the Lakeway Drive exit about 12:30 p.m. They then formed a blockade, with several attendees using chains and pipes to link hands.

The demonstrators remained in place for about an hour before willingly dispersing.

But just before protesters cleared the roadway, a crash involving five cars occurred at the rear of the jam, near the exit to Chuckanut Drive, said Trooper Heather Axtman with the Washington State Patrol. One person was taken to St. Joseph hospital, Axtman said, adding that she didn’t know the extent of the person’s injuries. Other details of the crash were not available.

The rollover, Axtman said, was a direct result of the backup caused by the blockade. Drivers could not see the backup in time after coming around a curve in the road, she said.

The protest put a strain on the state patrol, the agency with purview over the state’s freeways, which only had a handful of troopers in Whatcom County at the time, Axtman said. Only one, she added, was immediately available. The agency scrambled troopers from Skagit and Snohomish counties to the scene, and officers from other agencies, such as the Bellingham Police Department, also responded.

But in the end, not enough troopers could arrive to make arrests before the crowd dispersed about 1:30 p.m., Axtman said. Blocking an interstate is grounds for criminal trespassing, she added.

“We had fairly limited resources at the time and we were waiting to make sure we had more police officers on scene,” Axtman said, adding that, for the sake of officers’ safety, a small group of troopers can’t arrest a crowd of about 100 demonstrators.

“The situation might have been a little bit different had they been very destructive, had they been damaging other cars, but they weren’t,” Axtman said. “So we felt we had time to get people there.”

Demonstrators, calling themselves water protectors, created the blockade to protest an easement granted Tuesday that allowed crews to continue building a controversial oil pipeline in southern North Dakota. Since April 2016, opponents of the pipeline have stood in the way of the crews’ work, outraged that the pipeline has been allowed to pass near water sources in the area.

During their hour on the freeway, organizers used a megaphone to lead chants and rile the crowd. The spectacle attracted jeers from passing motorists, and sometimes profanity. Some drivers at the front of the backup were visibly incensed, and several got out of their vehicles and looked on with folded arms.

Michelle Vendiola, an organizer for a local group opposing the pipeline, said after the protest that there were “plenty of exits” drivers could have used to leave the freeway. Had the blockade become a hindrance for emergency vehicles, the crowd would have cleared, she added.

“I hope that people take away that it was just a temporary inconvenience, but these kinds of issues are impacting people’s lives,” Vendiola said. “I just hope once people get home ... they sit down and think, ‘OK, what was that all about? There had to be something really important, and what can I do to make a difference?’ 

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

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