PABLO, Mont. - In a last-ditch effort to renew an easement for a petroleum pipeline through the Flathead Indian Reservation, the Yellowstone Pipe Line Co. ran an extraordinary full-page ad last summer in the Char Koosta News, the newspaper of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes.
"We've done serious damage to the land,"
the company admitted in the ad. "For this we are truly sorry '
We're asking for a chance to do things right."
Company officials had reviewed the ad before
publication, but they apparently didn't realize the significance of
a howling coyote that the paper's sales staff slipped onto the
page. Tribal members must have noticed: Coyote is known as a
trickster in many tribal legends, one who can't always be trusted.
Once again, the executives at Conoco, Exxon and
Union Oil of California - the oil giants that control the
Yellowstone Pipe Line Co. - had underestimated their adversaries.
Like everything else the company had tried, the
ad didn't work. While tribal leaders agreed to re-open talks, they
denied the new lease a final time in late October. Company
officials, still shocked by their predicament, are now scrambling
to find an alternate route.
Few people familiar
with the tribes' feisty reputation would have gambled on the
pipeline's future. In recent decades, the 7,000-member Salish and
Kootenai tribes have gained joint control over a Montana Power Co.
dam on the lower Flathead River, retained the right to manage the
south half of Flathead Lake, and asserted hunting and fishing
rights both on and off the 1.2 million-acre reservation. The tribes
have also won fights with local irrigators over guaranteeing
instream flows and the right to run the area's main electrical
utility. Now, they're poised to enforce new water-quality
regulations on the reservation, which are tougher than Montana
The Yellowstone Pipe Line Co. eeds an
easement through the reservation to continue moving gasoline,
diesel and aviation fuel more than 550 miles from refineries in
Billings, Mont., to Moses Lake, Wash. Roughly 21 miles of the line
runs on land directly owned by the tribes or held in federal trust
for tribal members. It's big business for the oil companies: Along
the route, the line serves a variety of wholesale customers
including Fairchild Air Force Base, a refueling site for air
tankers outside Spokane.
But, according to
former Tribal Chairman Mickey Pablo, the company's poor
environmental record had become a continuing irritant. Since the
pipeline began moving fuel in 1954, it has sprung 71 leaks along
the route, and between 1986 and 1993, there have been three major
spills on reservation land. Monitoring equipment in faraway
Houston, Texas, failed to detect any of the
At one of the largest oil spills, when
some 163,000 gallons spilled into Magpie Creek on the reservation,
tribal natural resources program director Sam Morigeau says the
company initially used only "cat-box technology" to deal with a
pool of gas held underground by a layer of
"They scratched around a couple of times
until about 1990, and they basically didn't do much after that,"
says Morigeau. He says the company didn't get serious about
environmental problems until the lease renewal was in jeopardy.
In 1993, Pablo says, the company was reminded
that its lease was set to expire in two years. In 1994, tribal
leaders warned company officials that they'd be wise to get moving
on a required environmental impact statement. But company
executives dragged their feet, says Pablo, and waited until just
months before the old lease was due to expire to embark on the
Then, when pressed by company
officials last March to reach a decision before the environmental
analysis was finished, the Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council voted
down the lease proposal, abruptly halting the flow of fuel and
sending pipeline executives scrambling for new options.
The company had had a good deal. For two
previous 20-year leases, it paid a total of $193,000, say tribal
leaders, which amounted to less than $5,000 per year. After the
first "no" vote, company officials offered roughly $7.3 million for
the new 20-year lease and a $5 million bond to cover future spills.
Tribal leaders held out for more money and better environmental
Company executives in July made an
informal offer of about $29 million for the lease, plus promises of
state-of-the-art monitoring, college scholarships, tribal
employment and cash for cultural programs, among other inducements.
"We've begun to realize the ... value you put on
your land," Yellowstone Pipe Line Co. vice president Jim Taylor
told the tribes at the time. While the offer was tempting, an
overriding issue remained: The company couldn't ensure there
wouldn't be more spills.
"They didn't really
care about what they're doing," says tribal elder Pat Pierre, a
leader in the fight against the company. "All they want to do is
make money. It sickens you. This pipeline is just not the Indian
way. It destroys what we stand for. I saw a chance to get rid of
it, so I went for it."
Tribal leaders were also irked by what they
saw as the company's attempt to circumvent and strong-arm them. A
sore point was the company's decision after the shutdown to truck
much of the pipeline's fuel across the reservation, even though
that meant the trucks had to travel narrow, winding roads instead
of nearby Interstate 90.
Following the council's
initial decision to close the pipeline, company leaders admit they
tried - unsuccessfully - to persuade top Bureau of Indian Affairs
officials to override the tribes' decision. The company also went
to federal court in an effort to condemn some reservation land for
a right of way. But the lawsuit was dropped after the tribes
pointed out that Indian trust lands are exempt from condemnation.
Next came the public relations blitz, and the ad
in the Char Koosta News.
Company leaders pressed
on, sponsoring free public dinners at "informational" meetings
across the reservation, and offering more promises of a safer,
cleaner operation. Their lobbying tactics worked well enough that
the tribal council, bowing to internal pressures, agreed to re-open
talks and to put any suitable proposals before the voters in the
December tribal election.
Meanwhile, the tribal
council countered the company's campaign with full-page ads of its
own, explaining why members of the tribe should not be swayed by
the company's promises. "The pipeline agreement had to be fair, but
above all, it had to be safe," read one ad that ran in both tribal
and nearby Montana newspapers.
never materialized. Instead, company officials formally submitted
their previous proposal and offered to pay $3,561 a day in the
interim if fuel could move through the line while final details of
a permanent lease were hammered out.
company refused to sweeten its offer, tribal leaders proposed a
new, short-term $1.5 million-a-month agreement that would allow
fuel to continue flowing. The offer was rejected, however,
prompting the tribes in late October to order the company to begin
dismantling its pipeline, continue cleaning up past spills and pay
$3,561 a day in trespassing fines, retroactive to the previous
easement's expiration in April.
disappointed," Yellowstone vice president Taylor said after the
final go-around with the tribes. "We acted in good faith. I feel
like we've gone to an extreme to listen and reply to their
So far, tribal leaders
report that Yellowstone Pipe Line Co. officials have not formally
responded to their last demand for cleanup and removal of the
pipeline. Although Conoco says it plans to ship more fuel by rail
starting this month, dozens of 10,000-gallon tankers still travel
some 50 miles across the reservation each day to dump fuel back
into the pipeline at Thompson Falls for transport farther west.
Thus far, there's been only one serious truck accident.
While company leaders say they may want to
reroute the line up the Ninemile Valley west of Missoula, citizen
opposition there is already staunch and well organized. Recently,
tribal leaders have teamed up with Missoula County officials to
warn the company that its environmental record must improve and
that aboriginal lands off the reservation will be fiercely
Company officials, armed with the
power of condemnation, are confident they'll be able to put the
pipeline where they choose, so long as it's off the reservation.
"We will prevail," president William Hicks told
the Missoulian in December. "We are in business to provide a
product." "Ron Selden
Selden writes from Missoula,
For more information,
call tribal leaders Mickey Pablo or Sam Morigeau at 406/675-2700;
Bernie Azure at Char Koosta News, 406/675-3000; Yellowstone Pipe
Line Co. spokesman David Vanderpool, 714/293-2129; or John Bennitt,
director of external affairs, Conoco's Western division,