Crossroads 

From economic optimism to outright opposition, big oil's proposed "heavy haul" has divided cities and towns along the route.

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Missoula

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."

click to enlarge 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. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • 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.'"

click to enlarge 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. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • 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.'"



Highway 200

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.

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