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Movement to Resist Tar Sands "Megaloads" Brings Together Northwest Tribal Members, Environmentalists

The struggle pits the tribes and their allies in the environmental movement against the General Electric subsidiary that manufactured the evaporators and the hauling company that is providing transportation for them.

The Sampson family. Photo by Rachael Stoeve.

From left, Sandy Sampson, Carl Sampson, and Linda Sampson. Photo by Rachael Stoeve.

As the sun set in Umatilla, Ore., the temperature plunged. It was December 21. My hands were going numb, but word was the megaload might roll that night, and I wanted to be there if it did.

Umatilla, a town of 7,000 sprawled out on the plains overlooking the Columbia River, once hosted a U.S. Army chemical weapons depot, but the last of that stockpile was destroyed in 2011. Now, it's the starting point for the megaloads, three massive evaporators bound for the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Swaths of boreal forest in Canada have been clearcut for extraction of this dense form of petroleum, which gets its colloquial name from its smell and appearance.

The Sampsons see resistance to the megaloads as part of their responsibility to protect the treaty their ancestors negotiated.

The evaporators, which are designed to treat wastewater from tar sands mining, look like grey tubes large enough to swallow a trailer home. Each one is 96 feet long and weighs over 300,000 pounds. Each megaload's transport convoy—made up of semi trucks, trailers, and their cargo—is 380 feet long, 19 feet high and 23 feet wide, and weighs in at almost a million pounds. They will take up two lanes of highway as they move through more than 300 miles of rural eastern Oregon, through what Linda Sampson, an Umatilla tribal member who opposes the megaloads, calls "big country."

Linda, her sisters Sandy and Cathy, mother Arleta, and father Carl are among 30 members of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla who have come out to protest the megaloads. The tribes' board of trustees has also expressed concerns over megaload passage. The struggle pits the tribes and their allies in the environmental movement against the General Electric subsidiary that manufactured the evaporators and the hauling company Omega Morgan, which is providing transportation.

GE and Omega Morgan did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The first megaload, which left the Port of Umatilla on December 2, is currently stalled in Idaho due to bad weather and lack of permits for transportation through Montana. The second began moving on December 22 and is nearly finished with the Oregon leg of its journey. The third still waits at the port.

A contested route

Originally, Omega Morgan tried to move the megaloads to Alberta by way of Highway 12 through Idaho and Montana, but resistance by the Nez Perce tribe and local environmental groups stopped them cold. In August, blockades by the tribe culminated in an injunction blocking megaload passage on Highway 12, so Omega Morgan had to find another route.

Quirke believes that the environmental movement's success hinges on respecting and supporting the rights of indigenous people

The new route takes the megaloads from the Port of Umatilla to Homedale, Idaho, via a series of winding mountain highways. The region is covered by the Treaty of 1855, in which the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla ceded 6.4 million acres of land in exchange for a permanent home on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. But the tribes also retained their right to hunt, fish, and gather anywhere in ceded territory, which makes up most of eastern Oregon. Because of those rights, the tribes' website says, they "maintain a keen interest and involvement in the activities that occur in that area." The Sampsons and other tribal members consider the 6.4 million acres a part of their tribal lands.

Third megaload. Photo by Rachael Stoeve. In a letter to Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber dated December 9, the board of trustees of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla challenged the permits issued for the transportation of the megaloads, citing lack of consultation with the tribe by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Oregon law requires state agencies such as ODOT to cooperate with tribes on issues that affect them.

The Sampsons see resistance to the megaloads as part of their responsibility to protect the treaty their ancestors negotiated.

"My dad, when we were young, handed us a treaty and said, 'You will always have to protect this as long as you're alive,'" Linda says. "My stance is just that: I'm not a protestor—I'm just protecting what we've been told our whole lives is ours."

"I'm not a protestor, I'm a protector!" her sister Sandy exclaims, and the whole family bursts out laughing. Their father, Carl, is the chief of the Walla Walla tribe and a direct descendant of Chief Yellowbird, who signed the Treaty of 1855.

The tribes' concerns also extend beyond their own interests. In the board of trustees' letter to Governor Kitzhaber, board chair Gary Burke noted that "tar sands mining has had negative impacts on indigenous peoples in Canada, causes significant environmental damage, and is a contributor to global climate change."

"In the global picture we all have to breathe the same air, we all have to drink the same water," Linda Sampson says. "And as the destruction continues it's going to affect us."

"A universal concern"

The megaloads have garnered a lot of local attention in their move through eastern Oregon, with local environmental groups joining the Umatilla tribes in protest. The sheer size of the equipment makes an impression on people, says Meredith Cocks, a member of climate justice group Portland Rising Tide.

Direct action was the name of the game on December 1, when two people were arrested after locking themselves to the first evaporator.

According to General Electric's website, the evaporators are water purification devices that treat industrial wastewater for operational reuse or storage in tailings ponds. But for Cocks, nothing can clean up the tar sands. "Even if they are a piece of cleaning equipment, I don't want to see the tar sands greened. I want to see the tar sands stopped."

That's a point of view shared by other communities in Idaho and Montana, whose resistance to the megaloads has directly influenced activists in Oregon. Portland Rising Tide's support for the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla mirrors the partnership between Wild Idaho Rising Tide and the Nez Perce, and many activists say the Nez Perce blockades brought the issue of the megaloads to their attention.

"To see indigenous people standing up and doing blockades was very inspiring," says Stephen Quirke, another Portland Rising Tide activist.

Quirke's activism is rooted in his experience in college, where he "saw lots of signs that the way we were thinking about the environment wasn't working." When he graduated, he moved to Portland, where he worked with a forest defense nonprofit on a campaign to stop a liquefied natural gas pipeline that would have cut through the Mount Hood National Forest. After that, his participation in Occupy led him to Rising Tide.

Quirke believes that the environmental movement's success hinges on respecting and supporting the rights of indigenous people. When those rights are honored, he says, "some of the most important pieces to addressing climate chaos begin to fall into place." But, he adds, a strong campaign of direct action is also an essential part of community resistance to the climate-altering activities of the fossil fuel industry.

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Direct action was the name of the game on December 1, when two people were arrested after locking themselves to the first evaporator, delaying its departure for a day. The action ramped up on December 16, when four activists disabled two of their own cars in John Day, a town along the megaload route, and locked themselves to the vehicles in a bid to stop the first evaporator. All four were arrested, along with 12 others who were there supporting the action. Portland Rising Tide has set up a donation page to help cover legal expenses for the arrestees.

Emmalyn Garrett, an Oregon resident involved with Cascadia Earth First!, was among the bystanders arrested that night. She grew up in rural Douglas County, Ore., and doesn't want to see her state play host to some of the major fossil-fuel infrastructure projects planned for the Pacific Northwest.

She's also worried about climate change. In that light, she says, "use of roads to transport fossil fuel equipment is a universal concern."


Rachael Stoeve Rachael Stoeve wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Rachael is an independent journalist based in Seattle.

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