Big rigs and rural roads don't mix

Tarsands transport raises Montanan's ire

  • Annick Smith


I remember the stirring speech Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2008: "We face a great new challenge, one that threatens our economy, our climate and our very way of life... This costly reliance on fossil fuels threatens America and the world ... We need a new energy system that is clean, green and American-made."

That day I was proud of my governor for being on the side of the future. But these days he says that we need energy, and the safest supply right now is coming from places like Alberta -- meaning the dirtiest type of fossil fuel. It is extracted from Canadian tar sands by a process that is destroying Alberta's boreal forests, gobbling up its water and filling the atmosphere and earth with toxic wastes.  And then Schweitzer says, "This is conflict-free oil."

Although no armies are battling over Alberta's oil sands, there is plenty of conflict. The equipment necessary to mine and extract the oil is gigantic, and it is manufactured in Asia, not in the United States or Canada. Super-trucks as wide as the road are needed to haul these super-machines, and the shortest, cheapest way to haul them to Alberta from South Korea is across the Pacific, up along the Columbia and Snake rivers, and then overland on roads through Idaho and Montana.

That means Idaho and Montana will become sacrifice zones for multinational corporations such as Exxon and Conoco and foreign countries such as South Korea and Canada. And if this plan goes forward, any hope of restoring wild salmon by removing Snake River dams will go down the drain. The scheme would transform Highway 12 -- a national scenic byway along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers -- and Highway 200, which runs along the world-famous Blackfoot River, into a permanent industrial corridor.

The big rigs that are coming are 220 feet long, up to 29 feet wide, 30 feet tall, and when loaded, will weigh up to 650,000 pounds. They will take up both lanes of the narrow, winding, cliff-side highways, and the vehicles are heavier and longer than any two-lane in Idaho or Montana was ever built to hold.

Accidents are sure to happen. Only a few of weeks ago, a diesel tanker slipped off Highway 12 and spilled 7,500 gallons of fuel next to the Lochsa River. What if it had been a big rig? It's like a bad horror movie. Every night, for who knows how long, giant mechanized beasts will pass through towns such as Orofino, Kooskia, Lolo, Missoula and Lincoln. They will delay emergency services and local traffic, sink property values, harm historic and archaeological sites, and depress the tourism and recreational businesses that are the lifeblood of our communities.

In exchange, what will Idaho and Montana get? Not much, to quote Gov. Schweitzer in his green phase,  "Since when has [an] oil company ever been interested in jobs? Let's be honest ... it's green technology that is creating the most jobs right now ... 10 times more than any other sector."

Here's what we'll really get: relatively low-paying jobs for the highway workers who hold the stop-and-go signs on Lolo Pass and Rogers Pass in sub-zero temperatures, new money for the Lewiston port, some work for police and local contractors, and a few million dollars for state coffers. Nothing will offset the profits the oil companies will reap by taking the shortcut we're offering them. We'll also get more taxes, of course, because money will be needed at some point to repair roads, bridges, degraded rivers and valleys, and to compensate for a probable net loss of jobs in tourism and recreation.

But we don't have to act like colonial states. This insult to our way of life can and should be stopped before it starts. If it isn't halted through litigation in Idaho, Montana can put the brakes on the big rigs. We've seen enough damage from heedless corporations to learn our lesson. Just look at the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, the Massey Energy Co. coal-mining deaths in West Virginia, the dead and dying people in Libby, Mont., who suffer from asbestos poisoning due to W.R. Grace's negligence.

As a longtime resident of the Blackfoot Valley who loves her chosen place, and as a grandmother who wants her three granddaughters to grow up among the unsullied wild rivers of Montana and Idaho, I urge Gov. Schweitzer to return to his call for green energy. We need to keep those big rigs off our roads.

Annick Smith is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a writer in Bonner, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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