North Dakota sues Dakota Access over farmland ownership

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota's attorney general is suing the developer of the Dakota Access oil pipeline over agricultural land the company owns in violation of a state law banning large corporations from owning farmland.

In a separate case, an American Indian activist accused of starting a riot on a portion of the land during protests against the pipeline last year wants to use the state's lawsuit in his defense.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on July 3 filed a civil complaint in state district court against Dakota Access LLC, a company formed by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners to build the $3.8 billion pipeline to move North Dakota oil through South Dakota and Iowa to a shipping point in Illinois. The pipeline began operating a year ago.

Dakota Access in September 2016 bought about 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares) from a ranch family in an area of southern North Dakota where thousands of pipeline opponents had gathered to protest . North Dakota law prohibits large corporations from owning and operating farms, to protect the state's family farming heritage, but Stenehjem reached a deal with the company under which he agreed not to immediately sue. He deemed the purchase temporarily necessary to provide a safer environment for pipeline workers.

The agreement with the company expired at the end of last year but was extended through June.

The company's "continued ownership of the land constitutes a continuing violation of state law," Stenehjem wrote in his complaint. He asked the court to fine the company $25,000 and order it to sell the land within a year or face more fines.

ETP spokeswoman Lisa Dillinger on Tuesday said the company doesn't comment on legal matters. The company has about three weeks to file a formal response in court.

Meanwhile, American Indian activist Chase Iron Eyes is asking the court to consider the state's lawsuit as he fights charges of trespassing on the land and inciting a riot in February 2017 . Nearly 75 people were arrested after erecting teepees on the land, which they believe rightfully belongs to Native Americans under old treaties.

Given that Dakota Access can't legally own the land under state law, the company "had no legal authority whatsoever to direct law enforcement authorities to forcibly remove" Iron Eyes and the others, defense attorney Alexander Reichert said in court documents.

Prosecutors did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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