By Ernest Scheyder and Terray Sylvester
CANNON BALL, N.D. (Reuters) - The sheriff of the North Dakota county where thousands of people are protesting a controversial pipeline project defended police tactics after they used water hoses and rubber bullets in a late November confrontation.
Kyle Kirchmeier, the sheriff of Morton County, where the Dakota Access Pipeline snakes through en route to Illinois, said in an interview late on Saturday that he hoped protesters would be peaceful while waiting for federal authorities to resolve questions about a permit to tunnel under the Missouri River.
The 1,172-mile (1,885-km) Dakota Access Pipeline, owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP, is mostly complete, except for a segment planned to run under Lake Oahe, a reservoir formed by a dam on the Missouri River.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe, along with climate activists, have been protesting the $3.8 billion project, saying it could contaminate the water supply.
"We really just need to get to a point where that easement decision is made. One way or the other. I don't care which way it is. We'll enforce it," Kirchmeier said from a county law enforcement center in Mandan, N.D.
State law enforcement officials have pointed out that most protesters are peaceful, but it only takes a few acting more aggressively to raise tensions.
Police have blocked Highway 1806 at Backwater Bridge, just north of the Oceti Sakowin camp, since Oct. 27, when protesters burned several vehicles on that structure. The bridge separates the camp from where Energy Transfer workers had been building the pipeline up to the edge of the river.
The Nov. 20 confrontation, where about 400 protesters gathered, with some attempting to remove the charred vehicles from the bridge, saw police spray water and tear gas, despite freezing temperatures.
"All the individuals who were there were warned. Warned to back up. Warned to get out of the way over and over again. It was a very simple solution: all you had to do was back up and you wouldn't get wet," he said.
The police have released pictures of small propane devices they say protesters were trying to detonate on the bridge, in addition to hurling objects at police, including "burning logs, lug nuts from slingshots, from water bottles," he said.
After meeting on Friday with a group of veterans, led by Wesley Clark Jr, the son of retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, who have come to protest with the activists, Kirchmeier said they will allow protesters to come to the bridge if they remain peaceful.
"We made the offers out there for the protesters that they can come down to the bridge and do their protests that's peaceful and lawful and law enforcement, as long as that continues, will back off during that time," he said.
Some 564 people have been arrested during the protests, the Morton County Sheriff's Department said.
State officials on Monday ordered the thousands of protesters now present to leave the snowy camp, which is on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, citing harsh weather. On Wednesday they said they would not enforce the order. The temperature in Cannon Ball is expected to fall to 4 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 Celsius) next week.
Protesters, who refer to themselves as "water protectors," have been gearing up for the winter while they await the Army Corps decision on whether to allow Energy Transfer to tunnel under the river. The Army Corps has twice delayed that decision.
(Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Alan Crosby)