Tribes beat back oil giants

  • Pipeline route in Idaho and Montana

    Diane Sylvain
  • Former Salish and Kootenai tribal chairman Mickey Pablo

    Ron Selden
  • Tribal chairwoman Rhonda Clairmont Swaney

    Tom Bauer/Missoulian

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 state laws.

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 leaks.

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 clay.

"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 lengthy study.

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 protection.

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."

A bad move

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.

New negotiations 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.

When the 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.

"I'm very 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 environmental concerns."

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 protected.

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 writes from Missoula, Montana.

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, 303/286-2035.

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