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Restoring the Lower Snake River

Nez Perce wait for US Forest Service report that could stop megaloads from driving through scenic river corridor

September 26, 2013

Kevin Taylor

megload.july2013The August night Angela Picard joined the protests, it was near midnight but still hot along the Clearwater River east of Lewiston, Idaho. Blue and red strobes from police cars illuminated the crowd of 200, most of them, like Picard, members of the Nez Perce tribe. They spilled onto Highway 12 hoping to stop the progress of a so-called megaload truck bound for the tar sands of Alberta, Canada.

The route would take it straight through tribal lands. The protesters whooped and hollered. Many brandished signs and posters, one held a staff with eagle feathers. Picard listened to men and women, parents and children, singing the old songs in the old language. The sounds inspired her.

So she stepped onto the highway and joined the rowdy human chain attempting to protect the river corridor from turning into an industrial corridor.

Two nights later at the protests, Picard was wearing a traditional Nez Perce wing dress made by her mother when she was arrested, one of 28 tribal members taken into custody between the nights of Aug. 5-8. Those arrests – and those protests – had an impact.

Earlier this month, a federal judge issued an injunction that halted a second megaload from moving through the scenic land until the U.S. Forest Service conducts a "corridor study." Their job: to identify "intrinsic values" that could be affected by the massive pieces of industrial equipment trundling through the 100 miles of highway in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, where there are federal and treaty protections.

That study is due to be completed Monday, and then the Forest Service must consult with the Nez Perce. The company behind the megaloads, the GE-owned Resources Conservation Company International (RCCI) has appealed the ruling.

Picard, who is a site manager for the Nez Perce tribe's branch of Northwest Indian College, never envisioned that she would end up arrested.

"I'm not bold or brave or anything like that," she said.

But the sound of the old songs got to her.

Not just any old songs

Angela Picard, center, in her red wing dress the night she was arrested for disorderly conduct. Lillian Wahput. "It wasn't just any old songs. They were songs that our grandfathers sang. And one of the songs came from the Nez Perce War," she said, referring to the 1877 conflict involving Chief Joseph.

She was jolted, she said, by the connection to previous battles for treaty rights and tribal sovereignty, realizing "This is what we stand for. This is what we've always stood for.''

The oil industry had been shipping Korean-made equipment via Gulf Coast or Great Lake ports to mine the tar-like bitumen for oil in Alberta. In 2007 the search began for a quicker, cheaper route. They found one in this circuitous path: up the Columbia and Snake rivers to Lewiston, Idaho, and trucking across Idaho and Montana to Canada. It is free of tunnels, overpasses or snow sheds that block other routes.

The Idaho Transportation Department, which issues transit permits, says the oil industry megaloads are the largest and heaviest items to roll over historic Highway 12, which follows the paths Nez Perce hunters rode to reach bison herds in the Montana plains and was later followed by the Lewis and Clark expedition in September 1805.

RCCI's evaporators are part of a process that uses steam injected deep underground to loosen the bitumen. When rigged out on multiple dollies to spread weight, and with both pusher and puller trucks, they are nearly as long as a football field at 255 feet. The massive cylinders — which resemble NASA rockets — are 23 feet high and 21-feet wide. The two-lane highway is 24-feet wide.

The evaporators weigh 644,000 pounds.

River rafters, fly fishers and conservation groups join the tribe in their worries over the megaloads, which include concerns about breakdowns and accidents, strain on old bridges. They are fearful that if such an enormous load tumbles into the Clearwater or Lochsa rivers, it might be months before it could be lifted out.

Joe Poire is the executive director of the Port of Whitman, which operates the small and gravel-dusted Port of Wilma on the Snake River at the Idaho-Washington border where the two RCCI megaloads were off-loaded.

"We would like to see these activities stay in our region and create jobs," Poire said. "When Lewis and Clark came through this area, they came in search of gateways for commerce and growth."

Like many on the business side of the megaloads, Poire sees objection to their presence as being based on aesthetics.

But some residents along Highway 12 and tribal members list more specific concerns, such as being blocked from emergency services when a load is going through, or having restricted access to hunting, fishing or sacred sites.

Manifest Destiny as business

Protests of megaloads headed for the tar sands have happened before in north-central Idaho. Rural residents and a coalition of conservation groups had fought an oil company to a standstill a couple of years ago in an unexpected collision of disparate worlds — people who live along winding roads and rivers tumbling out of the Bitterroot Mountains, where there's a wealth of scenery if not of money, taking on industry giants who participate in some of the dirtiest extraction of heavy oil on the planet and who were seeking a cheaper way to reach the tar sands than using the Panama Canal.

The oil industry routing megaloads through traditional Nez Perce lands without consulting the tribe has a familiar feel, said Albert Barros, a member of the Nez Perce tribal council.

Some 200 years after the westward expansion that overwhelmed Indian nations, Barros said, "Manifest Destiny is now the cry of business. They want to take dominion and use their resources. And they don't take into consideration the people that live there."

Protesters are hoping RCCI, which is delivering the evaporators to the Canadian company Athabasca Oil at a deep-extraction project known as Hangingstone, will also find a different way to get to Alberta.

RCCI vice president and chief operating officer Bill Heins stated in court the company faces up to $3.5 million in fines for late delivery of the second evaporator, and up to $5 million in expenses if it needs to travel a different route. Heins was not given permission by GE to comment for this article.

The port manager, Poire, said the future of megaloads — whether they should go over Highway 12 or be cut down to sizes that can be shipped over the interstates, as Imperial Oil eventually did, will come down to a cost-benefit analysis in corporate boardrooms.

"That's the debate we're going to have right now." Industry, he added, "will have to figure out the size of the loads and what makes business sense. And they will retool if they need to. Commerce is going to happen somewhere. Some state's going to get it and the revenues that go with it. And the jobs that go with it. And Idaho will have to decide if they want to be a party to that."

Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Silas Whitman agreed.

"It is all time-based. It’s costing them money when they're not shipping," he said. "The idea is let's do a holding action while we try to gain our strengths and determine how best to attack this thing."

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