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U.S. Customs and Border Protection is investigating an incident in which one of its helicopters flew low over protestors this week in Minnesota, billowing dust over them with its rotor downwash.
The incident occurred June 7 when a CBP AS350 helicopter was called in to help local law enforcement deal with people protesting the Enbridge Energy pipeline project in Minnesota.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Grand Forks responded to a local law enforcement request for assistance to address a gathering of people who were reported to have trespassed on private property,” a CBP spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Vertical. “CBP’s headquarters is investigating the facts to determine precisely what occurred and whether the actions taken were justified. All appropriate actions will be taken based on the facts that are learned, including with respect to the incident itself as well as the agency’s applicable policies and procedures.”
A video of the flight shared on Twitter and other social media platforms shows the helicopter in a low hover, moving sideways near a group of protesters gathered at a construction site. The so-called “water protectors” are protesting Canada-based Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 oil pipeline, which funnels oil from Alberta through Minnesota to Wisconsin.
As the helicopter nears the activists at a very low altitude it begins to kick up a cloud of dust that engulfs the people on the ground, according to the video shot by photojournalist Evan Frost. Frost says in a Twitter post that at least two dozen activists are chained to construction equipment inside the pipeline pump station overflown by the helicopter.
The Northern Lights Task force, a coalition of 17 Minnesota sheriff’s departments, said the helicopter was called in to order protesters to leave over a loudspeaker and that unusually dry conditions caused an unintentional dust-up. In a brief June 8 Facebook post, the task force insisted the low flight was not intended to disperse protesters.
“A helicopter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection was brought in today to issue a dispersal order to a large group of people in the area of Two Inlets Pump Station by Park Rapids, MN,” the task force posted on Facebook. “The idea was to provide the order in a manner that everyone would be able to hear.”
Enlarged screen captures taken from Frost’s video show a passenger in the back of the CBP helicopter taking photos through the cabin window on a smartphone camera.
“Unforeseen to local law enforcement and due to the extremely dry conditions, dust kicked up in the area,” the task force added. “As soon as helicopter staff saw what was happening, they immediately left the area to ensure no further issues would be caused. This was not an intentional act to cause discomfort or intended as a dispersal mechanism.”