Roughly a year ago, residents along the pristine roadways between Idaho's Port of Lewiston and Montana's Port of Sweetgrass began hearing whispers of an unprecedented, large-scale transportation project by Canadian ExxonMobil subsidiary Imperial Oil. Residents on the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers reported witnessing road-widening projects on stretches of Highway 12 and raised power lines with little explanation. By the time Imperial Oil hosted its first public meetings in spring 2010 to introduce the particulars of its Kearl Module Transportation Project (KMTP), many people in Idaho were incensed. Folks just over the border in Missoula—where ExxonMobil officials appeared at Meadow Hill School on April 29, 2010, to take comments on their own environmental assessment (EA)—proved equally angry about and confused by the proposal.
The KMTP is an almost inconceivable act to anyone who regularly drives Imperial Oil's proposed route on highways 12, 200, 287 and 89. The largest of the corporation's 207 oversized loads, destined for the controversial Alberta tar sands mining operation, are three stories tall, longer than a hockey rink and 200,000 pounds heavier than the Statue of Liberty. The first 200 miles of road snake around tight corners and up steep inclines, frequently bordered on one side by sheer cliffs and on the other by a sudden drop toward the Clearwater and the Lochsa. Once over Lolo Pass, the loads will navigate their way down Reserve Street in Missoula before following the famed Blackfoot River up to Roger's Pass and the Rocky Mountain Front. The loads will crawl at 10 to 30 miles per hour while taking up both lanes of highway, and all movement is scheduled to occur between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., presumably when locals are asleep.
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- A number of the modules Imperial Oil intends to transport from Idaho through Montana now line the edge of the container yard at the Port of Lewiston, awaiting oversized permits from both states. The loads take up two lanes of highway, are longer than a hockey rink and weigh 200,000 pounds more than the Statue of Liberty.
Shortly after Imperial Oil introduced its proposal, ConocoPhillips came forward with a similar request to transport two coke drums in four oversized pieces from the Port of Lewiston to its refinery in Billings. The request generated a legal firestorm in Idaho last August when 1,700 citizens signed and delivered a petition to the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD). The petition led to a protracted courtroom battle against ITD's approval of ConocoPhillips' oversized load permits. News of another high-and-wide proposal—this one from Korean state-run oil corporation Harvest Energy—surfaced late last fall, strengthening fears of highways 12 and 200 becoming a permanent industrial corridor.
Imperial Oil has maintained from the outset that the KMTP promises an estimated $67.8 million in economic activity in Montana—including $11.4 million for road modifications and the construction of 53 new turnouts, and $21.6 million for utility relocations. Gov. Brian Schweitzer embraced the project on that premise, as has Idaho Gov. Butch Otter. Some business owners and local officials in both states welcome the big rigs for the financial boost they might provide; Powell County this month became the first county in Montana to take an official stance in support of the KTMP.
Despite efforts to garner some support, opposition to what's now popularly known as the "heavy haul" has grown fast in a short time. Missoula alone boasts three organizations all dedicated to stopping the big rigs. A sister group in Idaho spearheaded by more than a dozen Highway 12 residents held ConocoPhillips in an expensive legal tangle that lasted six months, and intends to do the same if and when Imperial Oil's permits are approved. Montana writers Rick Bass and David James Duncan recently released an activist book titled The Heart of the Monster, a 249-page condemnation of Imperial Oil's bid pulled together in roughly one month.
This week, ITD officially issued ConocoPhillips the necessary permits to begin hauling two loads on Feb. 1. The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), which stated last month that it would follow ITD's lead, won't be far behind in issuing its own permits. Opposition leaders in Idaho are now scrambling with their legal counsel, Boise-based Advocates for the West, to decide how they can proceed in court. Their counterparts in Missoula plan to host demonstrations as the loads pass through, and for months have been exploring other options to resist the heavy haul.
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- The Idaho Transportation Department approved oversized permits this week for the four loads belonging to ConocoPhillips. The coke drums are destined for the corporation’s refinery in Billings, and will utilize scenic highway corridors popularly used by tourists in Idaho and Montana.
With ConocoPhillips likely hitting the road in mere days, and with Imperial Oil awaiting its turn, the hopes and fears expressed by fractured communities along the route will soon reach a crescendo. But already, these oversized loads have made an indelible mark along every stretch of the route.
The Port of Lewiston
Port of Lewiston Manager David Doeringsfeld sits in a spacious conference room just a few hundred yards from where dozens of oversized loads are currently stored for two major oil corporations. He spins an uplifting tale of job creation and job salvation here in Lewiston resulting directly from the presence of Imperial Oil and ConocoPhillips. Without their business, he says the port would have laid off its container yard personnel this winter.
"The river system is down right now for almost a three and a half month period," Doeringsfeld says. "If it weren't for the storage and working with Imperial and Conoco right now, we would have had to lay off all the employees with our container yard operations because right now there's just limited rail service through the port while locks are being repaired on the Columbia-Snake River system...This has allowed us to keep our people employed during that period of time."
Specifically, Doeringsfeld says the business has directly saved five jobs in the port's container yard.
ConocoPhillips' four shipments–coke drums destined for the company's refinery in Billings—arrived in late May last year. More than 30 of Imperial Oil's Erector Set-like modules showed up four months later, and now line the edge of the container yard. The profit for the port from ExxonMobil alone totals $80,000 a month, Doeringsfeld says.
"I think the majority of the residents of the area recognize the benefits," he says. "Activity fosters activity, and when you're able to bring in a new business such as this, there's the potential of job creation not just in the short term but in the long term."
Those jobs could include engineers hired to work on electrical components and welders contracted for metal work, he adds.
But Doeringsfeld's story isn't entirely positive. The number of containers handled by the Port of Lewiston has dropped dramatically over the past decade, as has the amount of wheat transported annually from the country's grain belt through the port to markets in Asia. Lewiston processed 675,596 containers in 2007, according to the port's historic shipping report. That total fell to 388,957 in 2010. The decline is mostly attributed to increased use of railways to ports farther west like Seattle, Doeringsfeld says. And with the Columbia and Snake rivers closed through late March for lock repairs on three dams, barge business is at present non-existent.
To make up for tumbling revenues, Doeringsfeld has been marketing the port as a gateway to a valuable yet relatively undiscovered oversized shipping corridor—primarily utilizing Highway 12—that ties the Pacific Rim to Canada and the interior United States.
"Utilizing this route as a viable alternative has only been recently 'discovered' by logistics companies representing companies who have oversized equipment destined for the interiors of Canada and the U.S. Midwest," the port's website states in a section titled "Columbia-Snake Corridor and Highway 12: The West Coast Alternative." "The carbon footprint, transportation, permitting and strategic planning costs of utilizing this route [are] significantly less than shipping through alternate marine routes importing into the United States with the same destination."
Doeringsfeld adds that in 2009, he and representatives from the Port of Vancouver attended a conference in Calgary with the intention of directly promoting the heavy haul corridor to natural resource development corporations. The Port of Lewiston has effectively incorporated roadways east of its docks in this mass marketing strategy, earning the ire of residents, business owners, agency officials and environmental activists across the U.S. and Canada.
"It is my opinion that authorizing these loads will ultimately lead to future additional proposals," Rick Brazell, Forest Service supervisor for the Clearwater National Forest, stated in a letter to Idaho Transportation Department Director Jim Carpenter in September 2010. "And while one or two projects might be tolerated, more frequent occurrences of such loads are not the experience people traveling, living, working, and recreating on U.S. Highway 12 expect."
Doeringsfeld respects the rights of those opposing the loads to voice their concerns. Yet he questions the actual impact the heavy haul—or the establishment of the permanent oversized corridor he feels could save the port—will have on residents, small businesses and the environment. These loads will pass through by night, he says, and by day will only occupy two turnouts along the entire 202-mile stretch of Highway 12. He acknowledges that a portion of that roadway bears the federal designation of a wild and scenic byway, but believes that designation "does not trump that it's also a corridor for commerce."
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Highway 12 follows the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers from the Port of Lewiston to Lolo Pass. This narrow, windy riverside road was designated a scenic byway by the state of Idaho in 1989. It is also one of only 31 All-American Roads recognized by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"A lot of times I see in the media stories that it's a scenic byway that Lewis and Clark [used]," Doeringsfeld says. "Well, let's go back. Why was Lewis and Clark there in the first place? Thomas Jefferson sent them out on an expedition to find a waterway to promote commerce east and west in the United States. I'd throw out there that Lewis and Clark would be pretty darn happy that the mission that they were sent out on is helping to come to fruition 100 [sic] years after their expedition."
Highway 12 resident Linwood Laughy, one of the intervenors in the legal battle against the ConocoPhillips loads, doesn't quite share Doeringsfeld's historical analysis. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark nearly died, he says, when the Corps of Discovery crossed the Bitterroot Mountains into Idaho in the winter of 1805—205 years ago.
"One of the biggest disappointments of the captains, as well as of the president, was that there was no passage," Laughy says. "That's one of the things that they were looking for, and they discovered it didn't exist. The country was simply too rugged for that. It seems to me that's the same situation today."
The view from Laughy's back porch two miles east of Kooskia overlooks an open stretch of the middle fork of the Clearwater River, which Congress selected as one of eight waterways nationwide to include in the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The federal protections promised under the act were supplemented in 1989 when the state of Idaho declared Highway 12 a scenic byway, and complemented even further with an All-American Road designation in 2005. In Laughy's eyes, the shipments ConocoPhillips and Imperial Oil propose to move along this route fly in the face of those longstanding protections.
"I don't know many places you can go sit at seven in the morning and watch the sun come up on a white sand beach that's 150 yards long beside a river that's so clear you can drink out of it, and be the only person on the beach," Laughy says. "To think that we're going to sell that out to giant international corporations for nothing? I mean, I wouldn't sell it for anything, but it seems ludicrous to us. It's just not right."
Laughy and his wife, Borg Hendrickson, first became aware of the proposed heavy haul in spring 2010. The revelation came when the power went out and Laughy drove down the road to investigate, a story the retiree is fond of telling.
"I saw these guys down there putting a new [power] pole in," Laughy says. "It was a couple hours after the outage, so I pulled over and asked 'How long before the power goes back on?' They said pretty soon, and I said, 'Nice new pole.' They said, 'Yeah, we're raising all the power lines to 30 feet.'"
The surprise and confusion generated among locals by the unexplained advanced measures taken to accommodate the heavy haul prompted Laughy to dig deeper. The more he and Hendrickson learned, Laughy says, the more worried they became. Their reservations about the apparent secrecy of the project eventually prompted them to file a petition last summer against Idaho's permitting of the ConocoPhillips loads.
"The oil companies came in and met with various groups, county commissioners and so forth," Laughy says of the first string of public meetings early last year. "The message was essentially, 'Hey, this is going to be good for you. You're going to like this. It's just going to be this one time, we're going to do it at night, you'll hardly know we're here and we'll drop a little money along the way. And besides, we're not asking.' There was that undertone. 'This is a courtesy call. We're here to inform you.'"
Laughy and his fellow concerned citizens near Kooskia banded together as the grassroots opposition movement Fighting Goliath last summer. They've worked to collect their own data concerning the dimensions and condition of Highway 12—Laughy spent many days on the road with a tape measure recording road widths—to develop a baseline with which to monitor the loads when they do go through.
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Linwood Laughy’s back porch overlooks a pristine stretch of the middle fork of the Clearwater River along Highway 12. He filed a lawsuit over Idaho’s approval of the ConocoPhillips shipments last year.
The greatest fear at present is that one of the oversized shipments will slip off the road and into the river while navigating the hairpin turns along the scenic byway. Concern that such an accident could pose major consequences for fisheries extends from residents to Nez Perce tribal members. As Nez Perce Tribal Attorney Darren Williams says, "If one of these falls in the water, you could potentially have just created an artificial dam on the Lochsa River instantly, which would not be good."
ConocoPhillips stated for nearly nine months that such an accident would require the use of a 500-ton crane trucked in from Spokane (the nearest cranes fitting ConocoPhillips' need are actually located as far away as Salt Lake City). Emmert International changed its tune last month, however, declaring that any equipment that falls in the river will be ruined and cut up as salvage. Imperial Oil has yet to issue any similar change.
"If a company seeking an over-legal permit fails to demonstrate a trip can be made safely, without risk to roads and bridges and with minimal disruption to traffic and emergency services, the transportation department has the legal authority to deny the permit," ITD says of its ability to deny future proposals.
Mammoet, the Dutch corporation charged with transporting the 207 megaloads for Imperial Oil, has repeatedly stated in public meetings that the odds one of its shipments of equipment will go off the road are slim. Yet Mammoet has experienced two accidents involving oversized loads just in the last seven months. One Imperial Oil shipment went off a highway near Whiting, Ind., in late July last year, rupturing a fire hydrant and creating low water pressure and contamination problems for nearby residents for two days. Roughly one month later, a second Mammoet load went into a roadside ditch in Alberta; the driver, who had to be extricated from the vehicle by emergency personnel, suffered a broken leg. Both accidents occurred in sunny weather on dry, wide, flat roads.
"Crooked Fork, the bridge over Crooked Fork, has that curve and has a 12.5 percent slope," Laughy says, singling out a bridge just a few miles away from Lolo Pass as an example of the challenges big rig handlers will face. "If there's any ice on that at all and you're not going a reasonable speed, you just start sliding. I've been in that situation with a wreck one time. I started to slow down and was going to stop, and I just felt my rig going sideways. Those things can only go five miles an hour. What if it's slick?"
Fighting Goliath successfully stalled ConocoPhillips shipments for months with repeated petitions to ITD, and already has petitions filed against Imperial Oil's permits in case they are approved. The group continues to unearth ever more troubling information regarding the big rig proposals. Laughy recently discovered that the oversized load permits approved by ITD for ConocoPhillips last November—before his group petitioned for a contested hearing—include a stipulation that the shipping company, Emmert International, is authorized to "barricade the approved turnouts for exclusive use for the wide loads up to 24 hours in advance for each move." Such barricades would restrict access to public lands for the recreating public, and could infringe on salmon fishing access rights guaranteed to the Nez Perce Tribe under treaty by the federal government.
General concerns over treaty rights and cultural and natural resources prompted the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee to issue a resolution in July 2010 stating the tribe "opposes the Kearl Module Transportation Project." The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (SKT) issued a similar statement last summer.
- The proposed route for Imperial Oil’s Kearl Module Transportation Project covers roughly 500 miles of highway through Idaho and Montana, cutting through pristine scenic corridors and bisecting small towns in the dead of night on their way to ExxonMobil’s Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta.
"These areas remain of great importance to our people," SKT Council Chairman Bud Moran wrote to MDT Director Jim Lynch. "Our use of them is guaranteed by treaty. Federal and state governments bear a trust responsibility to safeguard those rights. From the Lochsa River to the Rocky Mountain Front, literally dozens of our traditional placenames line the planned route. Many of these names are rooted in our creation stories, reflecting the spiritual importance of these places."
Access to the wild and scenic Clearwater and Lochsa rivers may prove a short term casualty to the heavy haul, but others on Highway 12 worry about the long term implications of the Port of Lewiston's push to establish a permanent oversized corridor. Steve Pankey, an associate broker with Idaho Country Properties in Kooskia and 30-year veteran of the real estate market, says even the project proposals themselves could prove devastating for property values on Highway 12.
"Real estate values can be impacted positively or negatively from just rumors, let alone the actual fact," Pankey says. "If these in fact start hauling 200 some loads, it will have in my opinion a negative impact on property values...As much as half of their value could be lost."
A portion of that value lies in scenic easements many property owners opted into after Highway 12 won its scenic byway designation. The easements ensured the views from riverside properties within the wild and scenic corridor would remain protected from future commercial development or residential subdivision, and dramatically increased the premiums on real estate upriver of Kooskia.
Now Pankey believes those easements will be rendered moot by constant oversized load traffic.
"I can't give you a number, but when these loads start moving along there and somebody comes along and looks at property up there and I tell them we'll have these loads at night and probably during the day...that isn't what they want to come to this area to enjoy and spend their major dollars for," Pankey says.
The same will certainly be true for property values all along the route, Pankey continues. And the losses, which will only add to a weak real estate market on Highway 12, won't stop at premiums for scenic easements.
"Our prices are down anyway from the highs, but we sure don't want to end up completely destroying the property base, which will also impact our county tax base," Pankey says. "It's going to be like dominoes."
When Imperial Oil first began releasing details of its KMTP, Missoula quickly became a hotbed for opposition to the oversized loads. Students with the University of Montana's Climate Action Now, already abreast of the environmental injustices occurring at the Alberta tar sands, joined forces with local residents in the hastily constructed No Shipments Network. Northern Rockies Rising Tide (NRRT), a band of climate change activists advocating direct action, simultaneously took up the effort to stop the KMTP by whatever means necessary. NRRT leader Nick Stocks says the group's primary role has been as a "sounding board and receptor" for community action, including conducting some sort of "nonviolent civil disobedience around the trucks."
"People are pissed," says Zack Porter, former president of Climate Action Now and current campaign coordinator for All Against the Haul, a coalition rooted in the No Shipments Network. "I hear every day someone new telling me, 'You call me when those trucks are rolling. I'm going to lie down in the road.' It's amazing how little work we have to do to recruit endorsements for our campaign and volunteers who are willing to hit the streets and do door-to-door work. This issue sells itself, more than anything I've ever worked on before."
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Local author and environmentalist David James Duncan recently took opposition to the heavy haul up a notch, penning an activist book with fellow writer Rick Bass called The Heart of the Monster. “It’s a mindset that doesn’t value human history, human culture, anything alive,” Duncan says of the oil corporations behind the big rig proposals.
Missoula County residents have picked apart and criticized Imperial Oil's proposal in letters to local media, on online comment boards and at public meetings hosted by MDT. Late last April, hundreds showed up to press Imperial Oil executives and representatives from Mammoet on the potential impacts to local businesses, energy and sewer infrastructures, emergency services and the environment. They were offered sweeping assurances that life and public safety would not be interrupted, but the promises from MDT and Imperial Oil—at least in the eyes of individuals like Porter—suffered for a lack of adequate details.
Even government officials in Missoula recognize the potential detriments the community faces if Imperial Oil and ConocoPhillips are allowed to pass down Highway 12 through Lolo and up Reserve Street to Interstate 90. The Missoula Board of County Commissioners submitted a letter to Tom Martin with MDT's environmental services bureau last May highlighting its top 10 concerns regarding Imperial Oil's EA. That list included a point that "the document fails to portray the true economic impact to local businesses, tourism and employment. Especially lacking are the effects to the transportation and timber products industry that are so important to our economy."
The Missoula City Council weighed in as well, voting unanimously in late November to increase the city's oversized load fee from $100 to $200 per load. Dozens of citizens showed up to the meeting in support of the council's move.
However, as in Idaho, the primary concern among Missoulians has been the precedent these loads could set for a permanent high-and-wide corridor. The route as presently mapped would see oversized traffic utilizing Reserve Street to access the interstate and highways beyond. Lynch began issuing promises last year that Imperial Oil and ConocoPhillips would set no such precedent, but his previous statements in 2009 contradict his current stance.
"We are actually setting the stage for a high-wide corridor through the state of Montana to be used, probably for things that we haven't even imagined yet," Lynch stated before the Montana Legislature's Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee in September 2009. "Who would have imagined this would be proposed? Can we only think what might be coming down the line?"
Lynch followed that statement by explaining that the proposed route was not MDT's idea but Imperial Oil's, and that the potential for a permanent corridor necessitated public involvement. But critics question why it took an additional nine months for details of the KMTP to be presented to the public. Those heading the opposition also feel that the infrastructure preparations required for the ConocoPhillips and Imperial Oil loads suggest years of careful planning.
"It's a testament to the corporate control of government in this country, along the same lines as the Supreme Court decision that allows for unlimited corporate campaign contributions," Porter says. "Exxon is the wealthiest corporation in the world, and they were clearly hatching this plan years ago."
All Against the Haul focuses a considerable portion of its campaign to outreach, disseminating information in the interests of creating more widespread awareness of the heavy haul in the region and across the country. With that goal in mind, the group decided in its infancy to pull together an activist book outlining not just the sketchy backstory of the KMTP, but the grim details emerging from Imperial Oil's final destination in Alberta. After significant finagling, Porter and his cohorts managed to sign renowned authors David James Duncan and Rick Bass to the project. All Against the Haul independently published and marketed The Heart of the Monster last month, and Porter says copies of the book have since been purchased online by readers as far away as Seattle and the East Coast.
"Montana has marketed itself, and people come here from all over the country in droves because they want to go fly-fishing, they want to hike in wild areas, they want to see Glacier, they want to see Yellowstone, they want to drive on two-lane highways through beautiful forest and not have the canopy cut from over the highway as has already happened along this route," says Duncan, a native of the Columbia-Snake River country and longtime wild salmon activist. "They don't want the old cottonwood trees in the middle of Choteau cut so ExxonMobil can run a 30-foot-tall piece of shit through their town. What the hell?"
Duncan's home, like Laughy's, rests within plain sight of Highway 12 and the heavy haul. He lives just a few miles up Lolo Creek from Traveler's Rest, where Lewis and Clark camped both before and after reaching the Pacific Ocean. The ridgeline visible from his writing studio was used by the Nez Perce to bypass Captain C.C. Rawn's troops at Fort Fizzle just prior to the Battle of the Big Hole in 1877. Duncan says the entire region is rich in cultural history that major oil corporations seem to have no regard for.
"It's a mindset that doesn't value human history, human culture, anything alive," Duncan says. "It's just money worship, blind oil and money worship. And I don't think that'll stand in this state. People in this state still care."
Duncan likens the fight against the heavy haul to the mid-1990s battle against an Arizona copper company's bid to open a cyanide heap-leach gold mine on the Blackfoot River. The operation came with promises of job creation and economic activity for rural towns outside of Missoula, but environmental activists successfully sponsored a voter initiative in 1998 banning the use of cyanide heap-leach mining statewide. Attempts by the mining community to overturn the ban failed in 2004.
"Montana was the home of the first cyanide heap-leach gold mine ever, and we have banned that technology from this state," Duncan says. "Once the people see some of the damages, once we suffer a little more, I think there will be a citizen rebellion that could result. The tar sands is going to get a lot of bad press in the coming decades...In Montana, it could be as simple as, 'We want to shut this corridor. We don't want to be the traffic route between the Alberta tar sands and the Pacific Rim nations.'"
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Imperial Oil and ConocoPhillips claim that by shipping their oversized loads at night, they’ll avoid impacting local businesses. But SuzAnne Miller, co-owner of Lolo’s Dunrovin Ranch, says that’s just not true. During a recent meeting in Bonner, she explained that her ranch offers guests a night at a Forest Service lookout off Highway 12 for a crash-course in astronomy.
Much of Duncan's opposition to the heavy haul stems from his decades of rankling against the four major dams on the lower Snake River, which he says prevent wild salmon from reaching historic spawning beds in rivers like the Lochsa and Selway. But as an avid fly-fisherman with a fondness for nearby getaways, his interests in protecting Missoula's backyard factor greatly into his desire to see the oversized loads stopped. He remembers taking a PBS film crew working on a wild salmon documentary to a 600-foot cliff overlooking a tributary of the Lochsa.
"As [the cameraman] is setting up his camera, this four-foot beautiful silver wild female salmon came ripping down into the redd, turned her body sideways so her whole body shown like a knife blade," Duncan says. "She started using her body to dig a redd for her young. She's using the backbone of the continent. She'd climbed 4,500 feet and she'd come 650 miles, and it's so moving to see that. The film crew immediately starts worrying, 'Well, what if a bear comes out and gets her?' And I said, 'Then the bear gets a meal. That's how it's supposed to happen.'"
Public fervor regarding the big rigs boiled over once again last Thursday night, this time at St. Anne's Catholic Church off Highway 200 in Bonner. The details of the KMTP elicited gasps of surprise from many of the roughly 50 locals gathered in the meeting room, revealing that not everyone along the route has heard of Imperial Oil's plans. Much of the information provided by the three citizen panelists—brought together by the Bonner-Milltown community group Friends of Two Rivers—was identical to that offered by MDT and Imperial Oil representatives nearly a year ago in Missoula, Lincoln and Cut Bank.
"Their decisions are not motivated by malice," panelist and former MDT attorney Robert Gentry said of the three oil corporations seeking oversized permits in Montana. "But neither are they motivated by conscience."
Bonner marks the separation between ConocoPhillips' four coke drum loads and the 207 modules proposed by Imperial Oil. From here, ConocoPhillips will head east through central Montana to the corporation's refinery in Billings. Imperial Oil—and, presumably, Harvest Energy—will roll north and east up Highway 200 on their way to the tar sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta. But regardless of the company, residents at the Bonner meeting scoffed at the notion of turning the road through their town into an industrial corridor.
The absence of any representatives from ConocoPhillips or Imperial Oil didn't speak well for the proposals either. Both respectfully declined invitations to the meeting via e-mail (read aloud to those gathered), with ConocoPhillips adding that they'd been working with MDT on their proposal for three years.
The most telling empty chair, however, was that set aside for a representative from MDT. Porter says the department received an invitation to the meeting in early December but failed to send any response. MDT Director Jim Lynch could not be reached for comment by phone or e-mail. Porter hopes to see that silence change as opposition leaders push for several more public meetings along the Blackfoot River.
The testimony provided by one of the panelists, University of Montana senior research professor and 40-year economist Steve Seninger, did little to calm public apprehensions. Specifically, Seninger outlined that the job creation pitch Imperial Oil has used is faulty. Most of the 82 full-time jobs the KMTP will create are low-wage, low-skill positions for traffic flaggers and pilot car drivers. The new work for road maintenance and turnout construction will simply employ contractors who are already working, Seninger said, and the law enforcement escorts called for in the proposal will only require a salary bump for existing state and county employees.
"You don't have to be an economist to know that's really not an employment machine," Seninger said.
Seninger compared the limited job creation to the potential job losses the state will face if Imperial Oil rides through. He pointed to research by UM to highlight Montana's top five tourism attractions, in order: mountains and forests, Yellowstone Park, open space and land, rivers and Glacier Park. Tourism employs 33,000 people statewide, Seninger said, and in Missoula County alone tourism and outdoor recreation account for 3,100 jobs annually.
Yet conservation experts have struggled to find any real or potential environmental impacts to the Blackfoot River on which to hang their own opposition. Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director Bruce Farling says he's so far been unable to come up with a tangible environmental concern resulting from the heavy haul.
"I've looked at this thing and I've thought about it a lot and I'm having a hard time finding a really significant nexus to, say, fish habitat issues or water quality," Farling says. "Personally, me and a whole bunch of people think this is a really, really bad idea. But relative to our mission of conservation and restoration of cold water habitats, we've got bigger problems."
The main problem commonly accepted among residents of the lower Blackfoot—and Farling—is a change in the culture of Highway 200. Farling says Imperial Oil's proposal will turn the pristine valley into "an industrial traffic corridor versus what it is now, which is a working landscape with a bunch of recreation." Greenough resident and official Big Blackfoot Riverkeeper Jerry O'Connell describes the opposition to the heavy haul as "unanimous until you get to Lincoln."
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- The Kearl Module Transportation Project would transport massive modules right through the center of several small Montana towns, including Choteau. Yet county officials claim the public is eager to see these loads roll through, and no organized opposition to the heavy haul has cropped up in these rural communities.
"We're trading what makes this state great—a spectacular, beautiful country canyon drive with beautiful vistas and water—and we're allowing it to be degraded and deluded by commerce that is wrong on so many levels," O'Connell says.
Last spring, MDT stated it would issue a decision on Imperial Oil's environmental assessment for the KMTP in summer 2010. (ITD told the Independent that "an environmental assessment is not required by either federal or Idaho law for the potential issuance of permits to ConocoPhillips or ExxonMobil.") But Montana is now months overdue with a ruling, a development that has generated mixed feelings among those on the heavy haul route.
"I hope one of the reasons is that the officials who are going to make the decision here are thinking a lot harder about it than they would have a year ago," Farling says, adding that the KMTP is under more of a "microscope" than other road projects due to widespread public concern. "When we signed off on a letter at least to the federal entities involved in this, [we said] we want really good environmental analysis done before there's approval for this."
The harsh views of Imperial Oil's heavy haul bid evaporate further up the Blackfoot, specifically in Lincoln. Although the loads will travel straight through the center of town, business owners have welcomed the proposal for the assumed economic boost it will bring. Restaurants and hotels maintain the Mammoet's rig drivers and shipping personnel will stop in for food and rest while their loads are parked outside of Lincoln. Former Lewis and Clark County Commission Chairman Mike Murray told the Indy last May that the only consternation generated by the big rigs' midnight rides would be among senior citizens who might have to stay up late to watch them drive by.
"I think that there's a kind of mentality in Lincoln, Augusta, rural areas that we need all the jobs we can get in Montana," says Derek Brown, Murray's successor as commission chairman. "There's some financial benefit from this, but they have no reason to oppose someone using public roads in a responsible manner that helps other people with jobs."
As for the potential impacts to tourism along the upper Blackfoot and beyond, Brown says the new pullouts constructed for Imperial Oil could actually benefit the visitor experience.
"I don't see the downside," Brown says. "Maybe I'm not out there looking, but I don't see a lot of people cruising around at three o'clock in the morning looking at the beauty of the Front."
The Rocky Mountain Front
Once over Roger's Pass, Imperial Oil's modules will crawl at low speeds through Lewis and Clark, Teton, Pondera and Toole counties, past ranch spreads and farm fields whose pastoral beauty is already dotted with hundreds of oil derricks. They'll roll through the sleepy Montana towns of Augusta and Choteau—homes to popular summer rodeos and bases of operation for dozens of outfitters—in the dead of night. And it's here that organized, grassroots opposition falls completely off the heavy haul map.
"The general population doesn't have any concerns," says Teton County Commissioner Jim Hodgskiss. "There might be a few out there, but as a whole the population is eagerly anticipating them. It's going to be novel, I think, seeing those big loads come through. And it's going to be a pretty significant impact to the local economy because one of the places they're going to park is just south of Choteau here.
"There's only 6,000 people in our county," Hodgskiss continues, "so anytime you interject a little outside money, it's got to have a positive effect."
Hodgskiss and Brown both note that representatives from Imperial Oil have proven extremely accommodating when it comes to public concerns in Lincoln and other rural towns. During the first string of public meetings last spring, Brown remembers one Augusta area resident voicing opposition to the location of a heavy haul turnout. Imperial Oil, rather than disturb the individual's home nearby, opted to move the turnout site farther down the highway.
"What I perceive occurring is that there is an opposition to them using the roads because of the end use, and that's a political statement," Brown says. "That's not something I feel we should be involved with at this level."
Hodgskiss offers a similar hypothesis for the dramatic change in popular sentiment on the east side of the Divide. Imperial Oil has addressed the potential disruption to emergency services by employing highway patrolmen or local sheriff's personnel to escort the loads and communicate by radio with ambulances, allowing Mammoet drivers plenty of time to pull over. Imperial Oil will have to trim 21 cottonwood trees in Choteau to accommodate the loads, but Hodgskiss believes "they've got a pretty good game plan."
"It's just a different mindset over here," he says of the Front. "We have some oil and gas production going now, and it's kind of my personal feeling that the main opposition to those big loads is not the loads themselves but where they're going with them, to the tar sands. I'd rather buy my oil coming out of Canada than the Middle East."
Port of Sweetgrass
There isn't much at the Port of Sweetgrass but a shuttered café, a duty-free shop and the Canadian border. A busy afternoon amounts to a handful of Hutterites browsing the shop's wine and perfume selections. A few hundred yards away, the unassuming line of customs check stations are all that stand between Montana and Imperial Oil's final destination, Alberta. Officials here are almost mute on the subject of the KMTP, predicting no impacts whatsoever to Imperial Oil's last stop in America.
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Imperial Oil’s last stop in the United States will be Montana’s Port of Sweetgrass. From here, the corporation’s modules will crawl through Alberta to ExxonMobil’s Kearl Tar Sands project—an oil extraction site strip-mining millions of acres of boreal forest.
"The shipments will be processed like any other wide-load, commercial shipment that is transiting through the U.S. to a foreign destination," says U.S. Customs and Border Protection Area Port Director Daniel Escobedo. "We do not expect port operations to be impacted by these shipments."
But if opposition to the heavy haul dies suddenly at Lincoln, it picks up again inside the Canadian border. Here the tar sands have caused untold devastation to the natural environment as 10.6 million acres of boreal forest are swallowed up by the Kearl Project's tailings ponds, strip-mining pits and processing plants. Critics consider the tar sands the single dirtiest method of oil extraction employed today, calling for the separation and dilution of bitumen from sandy soil deposits. The process uses up to four gallons of fresh water to extract a single gallon of crude oil, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and requires large amounts of natural gas to power the steam-based operation.
Environmental groups, First Nations activists and celebrities like film director James Cameron have loudly decried the Kearl Project for years. Endangered fisheries, polluted groundwater and increasing cases of rare cancers among tribal communities downstream from the tar sands on the Athabasca River rank among the top issues raised by Kearl Project opponents. A study conducted by the NRDC estimated that the tar sands tailings ponds could kill as many as 166 million migratory birds over the next 20 to 30 years. Yet the Kearl tar sands still account for roughly 60 percent of Alberta's total oil production.
"Animals are dying, disappearing, and being mutated by the poisons dumped into our river systems," wrote a group of youth from three indigenous First Nations in a 2009 letter to U.S. Sen. John Kerry. "Once we have destroyed these fragile eco-systems we will have also destroyed our peoples and trampled our treaty rights."
Duncan, Laughy and scores of others question the sustainability of the Port of Lewiston's dream, not just for its role in accommodating the tar sands, but for the impacts its actions will have on the region's communities, economies and natural assets.
"What's been good for the Port of Lewiston has been horrible for the entire rest of the Pacific Northwest, and never more so than now," Duncan says. "Now that the Port of Lewiston is trying to be a conduit connecting the Pacific Rim nations to the tar sands, never has that port so sorely needed to be shut down. That place is a disaster for the rest of the region."