Annick Smith has lived in the Montana valley of the Big Blackfoot River for 40 years. In 1971 she paid $200 for an old log cabin that had been sentenced to death, and she, her husband and her four boys spent an entire summer moving it — log by log by log — to an empty meadow at the end of a long road near Potomac. She raised her family here, the same place she watched her husband die of a heart attack. It is, more than any other place on Earth, her home.
We sit at her kitchen table to talk, as rural folk often do, while the first tangible evidence of winter swirls outside the window, a blustery snowstorm that hides the Blackfoot Valley and the namesake river that Smith’s friend Norman MacLean immortalized in his novella-turned-Hollywood blockbuster film, A River Runs Through It. But a highway, the Montana 200, also runs through this valley, one that Smith and a growing number of westerners fear will soon change the area forever, perhaps even destroy it, if the world’s largest oil company is allowed to truck 207 giant pieces of industrial equipment — most of them larger than the space shuttle — from Lewiston, Idaho to the Montana-Alberta border, then through the very heart of Alberta to their final destination: Imperial’s Kearl oilsands project northeast of Fort McMurray.
“I drive that highway every day,” Smith says after a long pause. “It is my one road in and out, and the river is my sacred river. I have written about the river, I’ve helped make films about the river, and I go there as often as I can. I fear both for myself and my neighbours if anything should happen on that very narrow, winding, canyon highway — and for the river itself and the land around it.”
Smith and her neighbours spent years convincing the government to remove a nearby dam site, which had been poisoned by decades of mining upriver at Butte. Millions of dollars and several years were spent cleaning up the junction of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. “Before that, I and my neighbours and people all over the state spent a lot of time and money fighting a huge mine proposal in the headwaters of the Blackfoot — a Canadian project, actually — and we successfully stopped it with an initiative outlawing cyanide heap leach mining in the state of Montana.”
Again, Smith pauses to look out at the swirling snow. “Now here come the big rigs or the mega loads or whatever you want to call them, these gigantic, monster trucks hauling equipment to the Kearl tarsands in Alberta.”
WHAT HAPPENS IF
Although some people suggest the equipment could have been made in Alberta, in Nisku or Leduc, Imperial Oil maintains its only option (based on “competitiveness criteria”) was to have the giant modules produced in Korea, which boasts the requisite expertise and cheap labour. These modules are being shipped across the Pacific Ocean, then barged up the Columbia and Snake rivers to Lewiston, Idaho, where 16 now await the overland portion of their journey through some of America’s most cherished landscapes.
If Idaho and Montana issue permits for the shipments, which would block both lanes of traffic for 10 to 15 minutes at a stretch, they would follow Highway 12 across Idaho, then along Highway 93 (through Missoula) and I-90 to Bonner before continuing east on Highway 200, through the Big Blackfoot Valley, over the Continental Divide and then head north on a series of smaller highways and secondary roads to the Canadian border. Imperial claims the move will only take a year, but Korean documents procured by local opponents suggest it could take a decade or more.
But to describe the route in terms of highways is to entirely miss the point, say opponents like Smith. The proposed route is a meandering, backcountry roadway that runs through some of the wildest, most beautiful country left in the lower 48 states. It includes portions of the TransAmerica bike route and famous national motorcycle tours, two wild and scenic rivers (the highest protection granted to a U.S. river), the Nez Perce and Lewis and Clark national historic trails, and an “all American road,” one of only 30 in the nation that were designated, in the words of former highway administer Kenneth R. Wykle, to allow travellers “to look into the heart and soul of America and connect with the stories which have made America what it is today.”
“We have no idea what will happen on these narrow, cliffside canyon roads,” says Smith, “especially in bad weather like it is today. The black ice on Highway 200 is legendary. I know personally several young people who have died in car crashes at Rainbow Bend. If these things tip over and spill into the river, there’s no crane, no machinery, around here that could take it out. You’d have to go all the way to Portland or Seattle to find one. Will it dam the river? What will it do to the banks? What will it do to the flow?”
There’s also the issue of health and safety of residents along these highways, she says. “I’m 74 years old. If something happens to me, if I fall and break my hip, and I call 911, what happens in the middle of the night if the big rigs are rolling? It’s not only true for me, of course, it’s true for everyone who lives along the route. So we fear not only for the safety of our beloved valleys and rivers, places where we’ve chosen to live and made a life and loved the life, but we also fear for our own personal safety.”
Smith, a Montana writer and filmmaker of some renown who helped write and co-produce Robert Redford’s version of A River Runs Through It, may be one of the most articulate opponents standing in Imperial Oil’s way, but she is not alone. In fact, Imperial’s proposal has sparked a revolution across the Pacific Northwest, and it’s coming from every direction: Washington, Idaho and Montana; Native Americans and Anglos; old ladies and young lawyers; hunters and anglers; ranchers and guide outfitters and campground operators; poets and panhandlers; county commissioners and city councillors; Democrats and Republicans – and even, apparently, Tea Partiers, who don’t like being run over by Big Oil any more than they do Big Government.
In Idaho, Lin Laughy and his wife, Borg Hendrickson, have emerged as local champions. Congenial grandparents who raised their kids in the area, Laughy and Hendrickson live high up on a ridge above Highway 12 and the famous Lochsa River, about 75 miles east of Lewiston. After uncovering a quiet government plan to turn the highway into a permanent “high-and-wide” industrial transportation corridor, which is essentially a designated route that allows for massive truckloads, they started a website called Fighting Goliath to act as a clearinghouse of sorts for those opposing the Imperial project and another proposal by Conoco to transport four large loads to Billings using a similar route.
When they had exhausted every other avenue for a fair and open hearing on the issue, they did what Americans do when they feel the government isn’t following its own rules — they took it to court. Laughy, Hendrickson and a local tourism operator sued the State of Idaho to prevent the Conoco loads from rumbling through, arguing that the massive loads — up to 90 metres long, eight metres wide, and 10 metres high — threaten the integrity of Idaho’s historic portion of the highway, as well as the safety of communities that depend on it as the main road in and out of the area.
“If you’d asked us six months ago whether we’d be in the middle of all this, we’d have laughed,” Laughy, 68, told the New York Times in October. “But we’re resigned now to the fact that there’s going to be a major war.”
In Montana, Smith and others started a local group called All Against the Haul, which is mounting opposition to what is officially known by the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) as the Kearl Module Transport Project. People here are also preparing for a David-meets-Goliath legal battle, and while there’s no question that the impacts of Alberta’s controversial oilsands development form part of the subtext of their discontent, their efforts are not really aimed at stopping the oilsands, as some pundits (including Exxon) claim. It’s about protecting themselves and the livelihoods and landscapes they have grown to love.
Why, I wondered as I documented these stories of resistance, was no one sounding the alarm in Alberta communities?
ALL ROADS LEAD THROUGH MONTANA
Of course, not everyone opposes “The Haul,” as it has become known in Montana; some even champion it. On the way home from a recent Society of Environmental Journalism conference in Missoula, I stopped (as I always do) in Augusta, Mont. to fill up with gas. Augusta is one of several small towns along what Americans call the Rocky Mountain Front, an amazing sweep of Rocky Mountain-backed prairie that continues the drama begun with the topography of southwest Alberta.
Augusta’s just a long fly cast from the banks of the Sun River, and it is a popular tourist destination because of its proximity to wilderness areas and the backpacking, fishing and elk hunting for which they are famous. It is also on Highway 287, which means the big rigs will all but fill downtown when they roll down Main Street every night — if and when Imperial gets the green light to roll.
“I’m all for it,” says Barb, who owns the Augusta Service Station on Main Street. “They’ve already raised all the wires and built the turnouts. And we’ll benefit from the jobs and the money that follows them through town.”
“Besides,” she adds, “they’re coming through at night. I just don’t see what the problems could be.”
Imperial has been selling the economic benefits to local communities to build support for the project, which some feel outweigh any potential risks it might bring. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, despite winning his post on a platform of clean, green energy, is also a supporter. “It’s jobs, jobs, jobs,” Schweitzer told The Missoulian. “It’s $68 million. If somebody else finds $68 million that can be invested in Montana in 2010-2011, I’ll give them my home phone number.”
Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter sings a similar tune, as does a new, self-described “task force” called Drive Our Economy, a business-based lobby group formed to counter opposition to Imperial’s and Conoco’s projects. In a prepared statement, organizers blame the opposition of “outside groups” like the Natural Defence Council for putting millions of dollars of economic activity at risk, threatening Montana jobs and trying to interfere with local control over state roadways.
But the notion that these transportation projects will be a net benefit to the people of Washington, Idaho and Montana is something of a chimera, says Steve Seninger, a PhD economist and senior research professor at the University of Montana. “The official impact analysis as well as in-depth, independent economic analysis does not support these claims of job and spending gains from the project. Exaggerated promises of economic gains to justify truck shipments of massive oil equipment loads through Montana only divert attention away from the very real costs to the state, its taxpayers and the state's natural resources.”
So, too, is the idea that “outside groups” are the ones opposing the project. Michelle Landquist is about as local as it gets. She is a Missoula County commissioner who lives on an acreage near Highway 12, not far from where the big rigs will turn north onto Highway 93 as they begin their final push to the Canadian border. The county, she says, is a branch of state government, and its primary charge is to protect the health, welfare and safety of county residents, and she doesn’t believe this project is in their best interests.
“The only people that will benefit are the oil companies and their shareholders,” she says, rattling off a list of concerns similar to Smith’s and Laughy’s. “We’re trying to be green and clean, and this is obviously going to become a permanent corridor” if Conoco’s and Imperial’s loads are allowed to pass by her front door. The county, she says, is “not at all happy” with the draft environmental assessment (EA) conducted by the Montana Department of Transportation, which generated thousands of public concerns that MDT must address. “We want a full-blown, pragmatic review done, and that means an EIS (environmental impact statement),” which is much more comprehensive than a simple EA. And if their concerns aren’t addressed, Missoula County could very well take the MDT to court.
Eighteen kilometres down the road, not far from where the mega-loads would go through Missoula, city councillor Jason Wiener expresses similar concerns. “Nobody who is paying any attention at all believes that this is anything but a permanent high-and-wide corridor. While they’re just tiptoeing around now, they’re just going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing until they’re trying to run these things down Reserve Street in rush hour. The arrogance with which Exxon (Imperial’s majority owner) has behaved does not lead me to believe they give a crap about us.”
Missoula city council passed a resolution that doubled as its official comment on the draft environmental assessment that MDT conducted for the project, which council feels doesn’t adequately deal with the cumulative impacts of a project that could turn some of the most beautiful parts of Idaho and Montana into a permanent industrial corridor. And while the city may not have the jurisdiction to sue MDT, Wiener said he would certainly support the county if it did.
“I want to see the Department of Transportation honestly assess the scope and purpose of this project to develop a permanent high-and-wide corridor and the direct and indirect cumulative impacts of that, as the law requires. I understand that MDT is caught between Exxon and their duties to the citizens of Montana, but my opinion is that MDT is falling down on the job.”
Meanwhile, Imperial is getting impatient. Seventeen more modules are due to arrive at the Port of Lewiston before the Columbia/Snake river system closes to barge traffic on Dec. 10 for lock repairs, and rumours are circulating that Imperial is already many millions of dollars over budget on this project.
"We've played by all the rules here," Bob Delaney, major projects executive for Imperial Oil in Calgary, said at a recent meeting with The Missoulian editorial board. "We need to get on with this, and we think we've done everything to get on with it." Delaney shouldn’t hold his breath. Even if Laughy and Hendrickson lose their lawsuit in Idaho and the state’s Department of Transportation grants the necessary permits, they will not be valid until Montana also grants similar permits for the loads to use its highways. And this is far from a sure thing.
Even with Schweitzer’s backing, the project must still satisfy the concerns of a vocal, local opposition in Montana that is growing every day, and what this rising tide of opposition has in its favour that doesn’t exist in Idaho (or Alberta) is some of the strongest environmental legislation in North America.
“All roads, literally and figuratively, lead through Montana with this project,” says Robert Gentry, a self-employed, Missoula-based lawyer who used to work for the MDT.
He says that the MDT’s final environmental assessment and decision is about four month’s overdue, in part because they’re waiting to see what happens in Idaho. When the MDT does release its final decision it will either conclude that a more stringent environmental impact statement is required before they can make a decision, or they’ll approve Big Oil’s application and grant the permits. But even if it’s the latter, the big rigs won’t likely be rolling any time soon.
“I’m working with groups who are preparing litigation responses to a bad decision from MDT, and the Montana Supreme Court has set pretty strong precedents in this regard,” says Gentry. “But we’re also encouraging MDT to make a good decision.”
Like most of the people I spoke with, Gentry believes the scope and potential impacts of the project demand an EIS. “It would allow the state in a public and thorough fashion to address the potential impacts of this project. It’s really about good governance. It’s really about government taking a look at all the impacts of the project before making a decision. It doesn’t mean that they’ll have to [automatically] deny the permits, but they’ll be conducting government in the sunshine, by looking at the potential impacts before they make a decision. And that’s in everybody’s best interests.”
THE LONG ROAD HOME
Gentry’s words struck me as reasonable, so I decided to look into what’s been happening on the Alberta side of the border. After all, similar kinds of people live along similar kinds of roads and rivers here — starting in Coutts, the route crosses the Milk River before rumbling through Coaldale, then across the Oldman and Bow rivers and through Lomond and Bow City. Turning north on Highway 36, the big rigs will cross the Red Deer, Battle and North Saskatchewan rivers, and drive right through small towns. After a short stretch of Highway 28, they’ll once again head north on what has come to be called the Highway to Hell, Highway 63 to Fort McMurray.
There was not a word about the project on Alberta Transportation’s website, so I tracked down Alberta Transportation spokesman Trent Bancarz. In the ensuing blizzard of phone calls and emails, he assured me that the department had been working with Imperial for two years on this project, and that everything was in order for them to have their permits approved when they are ready to move the loads.
“There are no concerns from Alberta’s perspective,” he says. “Basically, we didn’t have some of the legal issues that they’ve had down there [in the U.S.]. There is no reason to deny the permits.”
Unlike the U.S., where only two loads can move each night, Alberta’s roads may carry as many daily loads as Imperial can shove up the highway, so long as each “convoy” is less than 100-metres long, and they are separated by 1.5 kilometres. Except for Highway 63 north to Fort McMurray, there is no requirement for trucks to pull over at any specific interval. In fact, they’re not allowed to pull over anywhere except truck pullouts, and Imperial is not obligated to build any additional pullouts to ensure traffic isn’t unduly delayed.
While the loads will move in the sunshine, the decision-making process appears to have taken place in the dark. When I asked Imperial’s media team leader, Pius Rolheiser, whether Imperial had done an assessment of the environmental, social and economic impacts of transporting these loads through Alberta, he pointed to the EA in Montana and “similar information” filed with the Idaho Transportation Department, and he told me to “check with Alberta Transportation for details on the situation here.”
Alberta Transportation, says Banzarc, did assess Imperial’s plan to ensure public safety, minimize inconvenience to the travelling public, and minimize any damage to the highway infrastructure. But when I ask to see Imperial’s plan or the government’s assessment, he says that I can’t. “I used the word in its general sense rather than in its specific sense,” he said. “There is no ‘assessment’ document available.”
Well, what about the communities on the route? The big rigs will pass right through Coaldale, I tell Banzarc. Have they been notified or consulted?
“Most of the route” doesn’t pass through “developed, urban communities,” says Banzarc, and besides, “provincial highways are under the jurisdiction of the Alberta government.” Although municipalities are “generally given advance notice” the loads will be rolling through, the only one mentioned in the pending hauling permits is the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo, which gets 24-hour notice. The others? They appear to be on their own.
“Stories of life,” Norman MacLean wrote in A River Runs Through It, “are often more like rivers than books.” But today it seems that highways and the things they convey have come to dominate our stories even more than rivers. In North America, everything has merged into one. Mountains and rivers and salmon and the people who love them have collided with highways and strip mines and pipelines and the people who profit from them. The rivers are dammed and the highways bulge. Each tribe has their own vernacular, and warriors write words on rocks and sling them at each other while most of us stand by and watch.
It is difficult to know how or if this story will end, and whether there is room enough in these ancient watersheds for both the road and the river to run through them. One thing’s for sure: Always the rain falls as drops, and when they come together and flood, they cannot be held at bay.