News media drone flights during pipeline protests approved by FAA

By Patrick C. Miller | December 01, 2016

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a statement this week saying that although temporary flight restrictions (TFR) are in effect over an area of south central North Dakota where protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline are occurring, news media organizations using drones to cover events there can get permission to fly.

The TFR—FDC 6/1887—allows only aircraft supporting law enforcement activity under the direction of the North Dakota Tactical Operation Center and aircraft approved by air traffic control in coordination with the Domestic Events Network.

However, according to FAA spokesperson Les Dorr, “There is a cutout in the TFR to allow media flights. If media want to fly in an area other than the cutout, they have to contact our HQ Communications Office and we’ll coordinate with the Air Traffic Organization.”

As of Wednesday, he said, “We’ve had no requests from media who meet those requirements.”

A TFR covering a 4 nautical-mile radius near the town of Cannon Ball, North Dakota, was issued after an Oct. 23 incident in which law enforcement officers reported that a drone flew near and over a helicopter used to monitor protest activities. A statement from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department in North Dakota said the helicopter’s crew was “in fear of their lives” when a drone “came after” the aircraft.

“We put the TFR in place at the request of state, local and federal officials for law enforcement activities,” Dorr said.

Also during the October incident, law enforcement officers on the ground attempted to shoot down at least one drone they said was endangering the helicopter. Since then, Dorr said the FAA has received reports of other drones operated by protesters being shot down by law enforcement officers, as well as reports of drones violating the TFR.

“Although the FAA is aware of anecdotal reports of drones being shot down, the agency has received only one official report,” he said “That incident is still under investigation.”

In addition, he said, “The agency also is investigating several incidents in which protestors have allegedly flown their drones in violation of the provisions of the TFR.”

The current TFR is due to expire Friday. However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the land near the Missouri River where the protest camps are located, has ordered them evacuated by Dec. 5. The agency said it has no plans to forcibly evict protesters from the camps.

Since October, the area has been the scene of sometimes violent clashes between protesters supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that opposes the oil pipeline’s route under the Missouri River just north of its reservation. The tribe believes the pipeline is a threat to its drinking water and will destroy cultural and religious sites.

This week, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., issued a statement calling on the Corps of Engineers to issue the easement that would allow the pipeline to pass beneath the Missouri River in the Lake Oahe reservoir.

Hoeven noted that area residents have seen incidents of trespassing, vandalism, theft and fire on privately owned land. In addition, he said protesters have created severe challenges caused by roads being blocked or closed either by protest activity or law enforcement’s responses to ensure public safety.

According to Hoeven, law enforcement has reported cases of butchered, mutilated, injured and missing cattle, horses and bison in areas adjacent to sites occupied by protesters. He cited reports of protesters following law enforcement personnel to their residences and using gas camp stove canisters as explosive devises, raising fears and safety risks for residents, ranchers and their livestock.