Officials in North Dakota are racing against time to move hundreds of cars and trucks from the site of an anti-pipeline protest before seasonal flooding sweeps the vehicles into the Missouri River.

“There are roughly 200 vehicles down there at last count, ranging from cars and pickups to rental trucks,” George Kuntz, vice president of the North Dakota Towing Association, told Western Wire. “We’re going to have a very drastic situation trying to keep these vehicles from getting into the river – what everybody’s been trying to protect from day one,” said Kuntz, who has been working alongside federal, state and local officials on the cleanup effort.

“We can’t leave them there. We don’t know what kind of biohazard is going to be produced with all the fluids or any other garbage that’s inside the vehicle,” he said.

Thousands of anti-oil and gas protestors have camped at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers in recent months trying to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline, which would carry oil from North Dakota to Illinois, is mostly finished except for a section that will run more than 90 feet beneath Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River.

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In its final months, the Obama administration halted construction on the project – despite earlier approvals by the federal government – but those orders were reversed by President Trump and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Yesterday, a federal judge rejected a fresh bid by the Cheyenne River Sioux and the Standing Rock Sioux to block the project.

The Corps, which manages the land where the protestors camped, has instructed them to leave by Feb. 22 “to prevent injuries and significant environmental damage in the likely event of flooding in this area.” A major concern is the “debris, trash, and untreated waste” left behind by protestors that will be carried down the Missouri River if it isn’t cleaned up, the Corps said in a Feb. 3 statement.

More recently, abandoned vehicles have also become a concern. “We continue to encourage people to leave and take their trash, waste and debris with them – including vehicles,” Capt. Ryan Hignight, a public affairs officer for the Corps, told Western Wire. “If they end up in the water, it’s not good.”

Officials at the site are trying to identify how many vehicles still have owners and how many have been abandoned. “There are definitely abandoned vehicles there, but the hard part is trying to determine the count,” said Rob Keller, public information officer for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. Two weeks ago, the number of abandoned vehicles was estimated between 50 and 75, and at least one vehicle has already been found in the water, Keller told Western Wire.

“You’ve got oil leaking out, you’ve got gas,” Keller said. Pollution from abandoned vehicles adds to already serious environmental problems left behind by the protestors, he said.

“You talk about wanting to protect the water, and yet not a lot of people are staying around to clean up what they started,” Keller said. Much of the cleanup will fall to the Standing Rock Sioux – the group that anti-oil and gas groups rallied around during the protest – and tribal officials have warned it will take weeks.

Kuntz, the tow truck industry representative, said he’s disappointed at the way environmental activists treated the land during the protest. “How do you just totally destroy something? How do you not care about something that you are here saying that you care about?” he said. Most of the damage was caused by “out-of-state people,” Kuntz said, referring to protestors recruited by national activist groups.

The sheer number of abandoned vehicles at the protest site could overwhelm the industry’s ability to safely move and dispose of them, said Kuntz, who runs his own towing company, Ace 24 Hour Towing, out of Bismarck. There is a bill in the North Dakota state legislature that would allow for unclaimed vehicles to be disposed of after 30 days instead of the current 90 days, he said.

Kuntz called on the owners of the vehicles to move them from the protest site as soon as possible before conditions get any worse. For those cars left behind, the removal process will be challenging.

“You’re not going to just go in there with a tow truck,” he said. “We’re going to have to go in with heavy equipment to be able to get these vehicles out of there, get them to the roadway, load them and haul them.”

He added: “We’re going to run 24 hours a day. Right now, time is against us.”