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Big Oil Wants to Truck Through Nez Perce Land

When 750 Nez Perce, accompanied by 1,000 horses, fled the U.S. Cavalry on a 1,200-mile route through the mountains, valleys and rivers of Washington, Idaho and Montana in 1877, their path took them past the Heart of the Monster, from whence the Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu people, originated, and through their precious Bitterroot Mountains. Their route was treacherous but their determination to survive was unshakable.

Some 140 years later, the black heart of industrial society has come to torment the Nimiipuu, using that same route.

ExxonMobil and some other large oil-traffickers want to run massive trucks and machinery (imagine the Statue of Liberty on its side, with wheels) through Washington, Idaho and Montana, headed for the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Those gigantic specialized trucks will carry monstrous pieces of mining equipment imported from Korea up to the site of a massive project in Alberta, where oil is being extracted from a mammoth pit by blasting saturated sand with steam. It is already the largest and most destructive industrial project in history, and those trucks could be shuttling supplies up there for the next 50 years. No trucks have made the entire run to Alberta thus far, but ExxonMobil hopes to get the green light for the Heavy Haul soon.

The supply route begins at the port in Vancouver, Washington, where the loads are shipped up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to Lewiston, Idaho, where the road-trip begins over Highway 12 in Idaho, and up through Lolo Pass into Montana and then north into Alberta. Those behemoth trucks would traverse through the territory of the Nimiipuu, the Blackfeet and other Indian peoples. If approved, this project, dubbed the Heavy Haul, would create a permanent industrial corridor in the heart of Nez Perce territory, that of the Blackfeet and would pass by the homes of thousands of people. The Heavy Haul will destroy a large chunk of Canada’s boreal forest, and the lives of thousands of Native people. Which is why the people are rising up against it, from Lewiston to Alberta.

At a well-attended community meeting in Lapwai, Idaho on February 27, tribal members expressed safety concerns about the proposed deliveries, and larger concerns about what the Heavy Haul will mean for the Nimiipuu and for Mother Earth. They were thinking big picture, long term, but having Highway 12 clogged with massive trucks for the next 50 years might seem pretty close to forever, particularly if you’re in a traffic accident on that road, which is already adorned with crosses honoring the many Nimiipuu who have died on its treacherous turns.

The website for “The Rural People of Highway 12 Fighting Goliath” lists a few of the reasons that road is special for Natives, and for all Americans—it crosses or runs parallel to more than 80 miles of the Lewis and Clark National and Nez Perce National Historic trails; runs along 70 miles of two nationally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers and, in perhaps the most telling appraisal of the natural beauty here, was named by Motorcycle Magazine as the number one recreational motorcycle route in the nation for its many curves and magnificent vistas. (Big, big trucks just love curves.… )

On an overcast and icy day in early March, one of those massive trucks got stuck on the road near Lolo Hot Springs, not far from where those citizens had gathered a few weeks earlier to voice their concerns. It was a test-run to a refinery in Billings, Montana that turned into a portentous preview of what the Heavy Haul will be like. One giant load made it into Montana only two minutes before its Idaho permit expired, and this truck was stuck for days before the driver was finally able to inch it down the highway. A run that had been scheduled for four days had taken two weeks.

The stranded truck stopped after it scraped a rock outcropping on the side of the road and the driver faced even more treacherous passes ahead. Then came the snow and ice, which changed driving conditions from dicey to dangerous. With armed guards keeping a wary eye on the truck, the driver waited, occasionally looking at the highway’s scenic—and potentially deadly—overlook. When a Nimiipuu woman stopped to take a picture of the load with her young son, the driver asked how long they would be there. She told him, “We will be here forever.”

For the past two years, oil companies have been courting transportation and state authorities in Idaho and Montana, promising road expansion and a boom of economic development in jobs all along the route. A closer look suggests, however, that this “boom” may not be audible. The trucks will not be stopping at the usual tourist designations on the heritage road, and the drivers will be not be local people. Road expansions will, undoubtedly create jobs for some Nimiipuu people (a few were hired this past year for the first expansion), but Tribal Employment Rights Office quotas may have already been fulfilled, and the loss of income from tourism will likely outweigh the benefits to the community. It is also worth noting that tourists—who pump $500 million into the area each year—are unlikely to care for the change in scenery the Heavy Haul trucks will bring to Highway 12.

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Nevertheless, the Idaho Department of Transportation (DOT) hearing processes for this proposal have been fast-tracked. In those hearings, industry executives have often represented the project as merely a small, interim excursion through this road and that, rather than the massive and long-lasting movement of industrial oil machinery the project actually calls for. The companies have repeatedly said that these trucks and this route are the only reasonable option. ExxonMobil spokesman Ken Johnson said in one hearing with the Idaho DOT that the colossal and precarious project was “safe and efficient.” Another ExxonMobil representative, Harry Lillo, said he expects the novelty of the huge loads to wear off quickly: “We’re hoping about the time the fourth or fifth [truck] goes by, people are going to say, ‘Oh, there goes another one.’?”

That is unlikely, especially since people who live along Highway 12 will not able to drive that lifeline when the trucks travel through their neighborhood. The trucks chug along at around 12 miles an hour, and hog the road on either side because of how wide the loads are. That’s why the road is blocked by a set of flaggers for a truck’s entire journey. Alleviating the inevitable traffic jams is a laborious affair—the trucks inch to the nearest pullout and wait while a batch of cars pass. The Idaho DOT estimates that whenever a Heavy Haul truck is on Highway 12, commuters can expect delays of at least an hour. Longer, of course, if there’s a mishap. “I remember an accident last summer,” local resident Patricia Carter said. “There was no cell phone service, and people had to run a quarter-mile on each side of the accident to stop the cars from coming.” Many of the loads will be moved during basketball season, when teenagers are on the road, driving over icy roads that have been the culprit in many fatal car accidents.

As a point of comparison, consider this: As of 2009, there had been only four trucks allowed on American highways of comparable size to those that will be used in the Heavy Haul. Those four trucks averaged 65 tons and traveled fewer than 80 miles total. The Heavy Haul loads are more than twice as heavy (up to 170 tons), and will travel almost 1,000 miles. The highways in the proposed route, most of which have just two lanes, were not engineered to sustain such large loads—the maximum load discussed in most state DOT regulations is 15 tons; the federal DOT allows loads up to 40 tons on the interstate highways. Do the math: 15 tons, 40 tons, 65 tons, 170 tons.

The project has been criticized by citizens of Washington, Idaho and Montana, and by many of the tribal communities that lie in the path of this impending trucking armada. The Nez Perce Council passed a resolution stating, “The project would establish a dangerous and unacceptable precedent in one of the most beautiful and pristine federally protected corridors in the U.S.” According to the resolution, the oil sands project utilizes “an environmentally destructive method that will have proposed negative impacts on the First Nations of Alberta.”

The Alberta oil sands project may seem to be an unrelated issue here, but ignoring it would require one to adopt an extremely narrow view of the world we live in, and the world we hope to live in. The Athabasca tar sands are the largest oil reserve outside of Saudi Arabia; The catch is that this isn’t a “drill a hole and watch the oil spurt out” project. Extracting the oil from that sand is an expensive, often toxic process requiring massive amounts of money, energy and infrastructure.

Thus far, the U.S. has invested some $100 billion in this project. An area the size of Lake Superior is slated to be strip-mined. Environmental regulations in Alberta are lax—the province of Alberta and Canada (considered to be a “Climate Criminal” by environmentalists because of this project) has leased more than 65,000 square kilometers of land for tar sands development. Tar sands production is licensed to use more water than Alberta’s two major cities—Calgary and Edmonton—combined. That water is turned into poison laced with chemical sludge, and the carbon emissions from the project surpass those of 97 nations combined. The forest and all that lives in it is being killed. Geese, ducks and other wildlife that land on the sludge ponds perish. Alberta grizzly bears are now listed as threatened (their numbers dropping by more than 100 animals during the past decade) largely because of the loss of their habitat and contamination as a result of the massive industrialization in the area. Dene, Cree and other communities near the pit now have elevated levels of bile-duct cancer and other rare diseases, a contaminated ecosystem, and oil-rig workers from across the continent littering their communities.

At every link in the tar sands production chain, communities are rising up against the project. The oil is being sent through pipelines to American consumers and those pipelines are being opposed, spurred in part by safety issues raised by the recent oil disasters in Michigan and the Gulf of Mexico.

No one agrees on what the real potential for disaster is with the Heavy Haul, but Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter has mandated that both ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips post $10 million bonds in the event that either company has a “mishap” on the road. Others affected by the tar sands have already had their mishaps. For example, the people in Michigan who live on the Kalamazoo River, where Enbridge pipes (one of the largest pipeline contractors for the tar sands) recently spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil, forcing families to evacuate their homes. The spill contaminated water more than 30 miles away in a matter of days. Enbridge has had 23 spills in Michigan and Minnesota since 1999, and many have still not been cleaned up. But Enbridge continues to make huge profits, and its chief executive officer, Patrick Daniel, pulled down more than $6 million in 2009. That would go a long way toward covering one of those $10 million “Oops!” bonds.

Whether it be pipeline spills, a toxic hole in the ground as big as Lake Superior or the hauling of mammoth machinery over roads that could collapse under the weight, the tar sands project is dangerous. The reality is that some oil comes at too high a price, whether that is the oil from the deep wells of the Gulf or that from the boreal forest of Cree and Dene people. This tar sands oil is dirty and will always be dirty. The history of this part of the Northwest—one filled with courage, horses and the Nimiipuu people—demands that we be vigilant.