Just after midnight on Jan. 22, 71-year-old Carol Marsh held a sign that said, "Tar Sands = Disaster," as she sat in the middle of Reserve Street in a faceoff with law enforcement and a 901,000-pound shipment of oil-processing equipment traveling through Missoula to the Alberta oil sands. Photos of the incident show the Missoula resident dwarfed by uniformed Missoula Police Department officers as she positioned her sign like a shield and refused to budge.
"It became clear to the police that I was not really planning to move," Marsh says.
Roughly 40 protesters, many from the Indian People's Action group, gathered alongside Marsh that night, briefly blocking the first of three Omega Morgan megaload shipments scheduled to make way through Missoula this winter. While those protesters yielded to law enforcement, moving out of the street to make way for the big rig, Marsh refused. Her stubbornness got her arrested and earned her headlines for being the only protester taken to jail that night.
In the days following the action, Marsh made national news. An Associated Press report got picked up across the country, and activist websites proclaimed her a heroic matriarch who had stared down an imposing foe.
Last week's protest in Missoula marks one of the latest skirmishes in a battle waged by environmentalists since 2010, when Imperial Oil announced its intention to move hundreds of oversized loads carrying processing equipment from Port Lewiston, Idaho, via Highway 12 over Lolo Pass and through the Garden City.
Imperial's announcement set off a flurry of outrage. While those loads never traveled through Missoula, a 2011 shipment by ConocoPhillips was met by Missoula protesters. Government entities, meanwhile, including the Nez Perce tribe and the Missoula Board of County Commissioners, filed suit to stop the equipment from being transported through their areas of influence. Those efforts achieved some success. Litigation successfully barred megaloads from traversing Highway 12.
In December, however, Omega Morgan introduced a new route, this time leaving from Umatilla, Ore., and crossing into Montana from Idaho on Highway 93 via Lost Trail Pass. The new round of shipments again mobilized activists, including Marsh.
Marsh says her actions are part of the larger effort to raise awareness about the dangers present in Canadian oil sands. She emphasizes the point by showing off pictures of her 11-year-old granddaughter.
"People don't want to believe it," she says. "The whole physical environment we're used to is going to change, whether we like it or not."
Marsh became politically active in the 1960s while organizing to stop the Vietnam War. She went on to wage protests against American involvement in Central America and the Middle East. While those movements were important, she says the fight to stop climate change is the most dire issue she's ever come up against.
"Climate change is threatening the entire planet," she says. "And we're not even beginning to come to grips with it."
A former journalist, Marsh quickly fires off statistics and anecdotes to bolster her argument. Alberta's oil sands hold the third-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world, next to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. As such, operations there are playing a significant role in the increase of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, a primary cause of global warming. And then, she adds, there's the immediate impact of the process on the ground. The Alberta oil sands to date sprawl out across more than 50 square miles of toxic waste ponds, stripped land and polluted streams.
According to Alberta Energy, which oversees resource development in the province, the region's oil production totaled 1.31 million barrels a day in 2008. That number is expected to hit 3 million barrels in 2018.
"Their plans have them growing to about the size of Florida," Marsh says.
The day after her arrest, Marsh appeared in court to face disorderly conduct charges. She received a $220 fine, with $110 of it suspended. The judge gave her a six-month probation period, warning that the penalties would be more severe if she were to get trouble again.
Anticipating the second megaload's arrival within days, an undaunted Marsh asked the judge, "What do you think would happen if I did?"
Marsh found out on Jan. 24, when she faced off against the second Omega Morgan shipment. This time, rather than sitting alone, she was joined by two other friends, Claudia S. Brown and Gail Gilman, also both grandmothers.
"I was inspired by Carol," says Brown, who has also worked for years to raise awareness about climate change in the Missoula community but never before put herself in a position to be arrested.
The three of them refused to budge and were charged by police.
"I was sent to jail," Brown says. "I was handcuffed and booked and fingerprinted and spent time in a holding cell—they threw the book at me."
Police cited all three of them, and the penalties included $160 in fines and surcharges for each woman. As for Marsh, because she violated the terms of her probation, she received a 10-day suspended sentence. That means if she gets arrested again within the next six months, she'll serve time in jail.
With yet another load slated to make its way through Missoula in the coming weeks, Marsh says that though she's scared of jail, she's prepared to serve time.
"I have been researching what happens when you go to jail," Marsh says. "Yeah, it does scare me, but climate change scares me more."