Tar Sands Heavy Haul: Into the Heart of Darkness

When over 750 Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu people, accompanied by 1,000 horses fled the Cavalry on a 1,600 mile route through the mountains, valleys and rivers of Oregon, Idaho and Montana in l877, the route was treacherous and the determination to survive as a people deep. During the War of 1877, their journey moved beyond the Heart of the Monster, from whence the Nimiipuu were created, passed the precious and historical trade route of Indigenous people that predates Lewis & Clark through the Bitterroot Mountains. It is some l40 years later and a new industrial road seeks to follow a similar route, pushing through the heart of Nez Perce homelands into the darkest chapter of American oil expansion.

The darkness of industrial society has come to the Nimiipuu, and is now stuck on the road near Kamiah, Idaho near the Heart of the Monster. When one Nez Perce tribal member, Sara Moffet Sedwick had stopped to take a picture of the load with her young son, one truck driver asked “how long they would be there?” Mrs. Moffet Sedwick responded, “We will be here forever… this is where we come from, this is where my son and his grandchildren will always be.”

At a well attended community meeting in Lapwai, Idaho, on February 27, 2010 Nez Perce tribal members gathered to express their concerns about the loads and what the “Heavy Haul” meant for the Nimiipuu and Mother Earth. As Nez Perce and non Nez Perce tribal community members expressed their concerns of the haul as an environmental safety issue for all people, whether tribally affiliated or not, a common denominator was established, the safety of all community members who live along the scenic Highway 12 will be affected.

Dubbed the “Heavy Haul”, some 200 trucks, many of them literally the size of the statue of liberty on its side, are proposed to traverse some of the most perilous parts of the Nimiipuu, Blackfeet, Salish Kootenai and other Indigenous territories. That’s a bit different than Exxon’s plans that they had proposed originally to the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee (NPTEC) last March 2010.

Destined for the Athabascan tar sands in Alberta, Canada, gigantic specialized trucks will carry monstrous mining equipment imported from Korea, to the largest and most destructive industrial project in history as part of the first phase of a 50 year expansion. The supply route begins in Oregon and includes the Columbia River, scenic Highway l2 through traditional and historic Lolo Pass into Montana and then further north into Alberta. The heart of darkness or “Mordor” as the tar sands are commonly called is scheduled to pass right in front of millions of people and through Indigenous territories. The project will destroy l0% of Canada’s boreal forest and the lives of thousands of Native people. The route and loads, if approved, will create a permanent industrial corridor right through the heart of Nez Perce territory passing the Heart of the Monster.

On Monday, February 28, following the evening gathering, Winona LaDuke presented the NPTEC with an overview of the affects on how the “Heavy Haul” is an environmental safety concern. As NPTEC Chairman, McCoy Oatman stated this was an issue of concern for the NPTEC and the tribal Office of Legal Counsel. Mike Lopez, Nez Perce Tribal Staff Attorney stated, “We have identified that there are 50 Allotees along Highway 12 and we are doing everything we can to communicate our message to federal, state, and regional tribal organizations regarding environmental concerns of the Heavy Haul.”

While many Nez Perce have expressed that getting a right of way recognized by the Idaho Department of Transportation (IDOT) is difficult work, the oil companies have done pretty well for themselves, in a short time. For the past two years, Exxon-Mobil, through its subsidiary Imperial Oil and an array of oil companies have been courting transportation and state authorities in Idaho and Montana, promising a new boom of economic development in jobs and road expansion along the lifeline of the Tar Sands Project. A closer look might tell us otherwise. The trucks will not be stopping at usual tourist designations on the heritage road, and the drivers will be from elsewhere. The road expansions will, undoubtedly hire Nimiipuu people as part of the TERO commission, (a number were hired this past year for the first expansion to work on the crews), however, TERO quotas may have already been fulfilled, and further, the overall loss of income from tourism has lost time and ultimately a loss of services and endangered families, will most likely become a heavier expense.

Nevertheless, the IDOT hearing processes had been fast tracked in an effort to keep the heavy haul project outside public scrutiny. At the hearings, industry executives have often represented the project as a small interim excursion through a particular road way, rather than the massive movement of industrial oil machinery that the project actually represents. The companies have said that the trucks and this route are the only choice. It now turns out, that the oil companies may have to break down the truck loads in size, and at least they can. An, interesting plan submitted by Exxon to Montana officials, called "Justification for non-divisible loads" in which they claim that cutting each module will take between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of work.

Soft peddling is the media strategy used by big oil. Exxon’s Ken Johnson represented the colossal and precarious project in Idaho hearings as “safe and efficient.” Another Exxon representative, Harry Lilo, said he hopes the novelty of the huge loads will wear off quickly: “We’re hoping about the time the fourth or fifth one goes by, people are going to say, oh, there goes another one.” This was not the response of the members of the Nez Perce tribal and non tribal community who attended the community gathering. Among the participants were members of the community who live along the scenic Highway 12 that were informed they are not able to move when the trucks travel. The concern was road access and the possibility of a road accident. As stated by Nez Perce tribal member, Patricia Carter, “I remember an accident last summer, there was no cell phone service, and people had to run literally a quarter mile on each side to stop the cars from coming.” The scheduled listings of the “Heavy Haul” of the loads are destined to be moved on the road and on icy roads, where more than a few Nimiipuu have plummeted to their deaths on treacherous road conditions.

Just for reference: As of 2009, there had been only four trucks of almost comparable size on American highways. Those trucks averaged l30, 000 pounds and traveled a total of around 78 miles. The Heavy Haul loads are each twice that big, and will travel almost 1,000 miles. Each load is up to l50 tons or more and members of the Nez Perce tribe are well aware most of Highway 12 road access are two lanes on the proposed route and are not engineered to sustain these heavy loads. The maximum loads discussed in most state Department of Transportation regulations are 15 tons. The Federal Department of Transportation provides for loads up to 80,000 pounds on the interstate highway system (although a newly proposed bill called the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act of 2010 would raise that limit, heartily benefiting a project like this). The loads, however, exceed even the “safe and efficient act proposals” at almost four times present regulations, weighing in at 300,000 pounds.

Likewise, the Exxon-Mobil project continues to draw criticism from not only state citizens, but from tribal communities that lie in the path of this transportation brigade. The NPTEC passed a resolution opposing the heavy haul stating, “The project would establish a dangerous and unacceptable precedent in one of the most beautiful and pristine federally protected corridors in the US.” The NPTEC also noted that the tar sands project utilized, “an environmentally destructive method that will have proposed negative impacts on the First Nations of Alberta.” To further support that message of solidarity with the First Nations of Alberta, NPTEC Chaplin Larry Greene, Jr. state, “we do not support the Heavy Haul as it affects other Indian communities.”

At every link in the tar sands, communities both tribal and non tribal are working to oppose the project First Nations communities like the Dene, Cree and other communities now have elevated levels of bile cancer and other rare diseases, contaminated ecosystems, and oil rig workers from across the continent littering their communities. The oil from tar sands is being sent through pipelines to American consumers and the pipelines are meeting with deep opposition, spurred in part by safety issues raised by the recent oil disasters in Michigan and the Gulf of Mexico. What is the real potential of a disaster? Well, real enough that Governor Otter of Idaho has mandated that both Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips post $10 million in bonds prior to transportation in the event that either company has a ‘mishap.’ Meanwhile, Idaho residents fight the project and cross their fingers in hope that the $10 million bonds are unnecessary. Others affected by the tar sands, however, have already had their unfair share of oil mishaps.

Stuck on the road this March in the heart of Nimiipuu territory at the Heart of the Monster is the preview of the big haul. Conoco-Phillips load of four monstrous shipments of big oil equipment from the Lewiston Port of entry on the Clearwater River, to a refinery in Billings, Montana. As NPTEC Secretary, Allen “Hodge” Slickpoo stated, “…the first truck that went through scraped the sides of the road and rocks.” These four shipments will act as a test to determine if Exxon Mobil’s permit application to transport more than 200 loads will be approved. This plan has gained much criticism from those who see the project as a threat to public safety, a risk to the pristine highway corridor, and a major blow to Idaho’s tourism industry that brings in nearly $500 million a year in local, state and federal tax revenues. In late August, the first set of Inglorious Bastards appeared - a set of lawyers representing resort owners, a travel agent, and various individuals who live along Highway l2. A group called “All Against the Haul” continues legal and administrative maneuvers - but with over 60 miles of the road crossing Nimiipuu territory, the Nez Perce must join in solidarity with our First Nations brothers and sisters across a border that we did not create.

Whether it be pipeline spills, the hauling of mammoth machinery or the squeezing of mud-like bitumen to get oil, the tar sands project is a dangerous ecological and moral set of steps for even an oil addicted economy. With some 4.6 billion barrels of bitumen and fifty years of projected profits for the likes of Exxon and Conoco, the tar sands project is marketed as an alternative to dependence on Middle East. The reality is that some oil comes at too high a price and whether that is the oil from the deep wells of the Gulf or that from the Boreal Forest of Cree and Dene people of Canada, this oil is dirty, and our conscience and future generations deserve better. The history of this region - one filled with courage, horses, and Nimiipuu people beckons us to be not only vigilant at this time, but to be the People our ancestors would be proud of today.

As a result of community organizing, an event has been created in which ALL members of the local, regional, and national community of Nez Perce and non Nez Perce people are invited to join a peaceful protest called March to the Heart of the Monster slated for Sunday, March 20, 2011 at the Heart of the Monster in Kamiah, Idaho as a stand against the “Heavy Haul.”

As a peaceful protest, this event encourages a non violent protest in which both Nez Perce tribal and non tribal community are asked to stand up against the environmental safety and concerns of how the “Heavy Haul” does not benefit our home lands and is occupying at a sacred site, near the Heart of the Monster, where the creation of Nimiipuu people began as told by Coyote.

For more information on local planning events, please contact Heart of the Monster community organizer, Justine Miles at [email protected].

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