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Truckers Help Fuel Up Area Tribes Refuse To Let Refinery Use Section Of Pipeline On Reservation

Trucker Steve Robbins jumped down from his rig Monday morning pleased with his first haul of gasoline from Missoula to Thompson Falls.

The 100-mile trip had passed without a hitch, he said, with little interference from the huge chip-hauling trucks that frequent the sometimes serpentine route.

“It was beautiful all the way across,” he said before returning to his rig to begin the half-hour process of unloading its 10,000-gallon cargo.

Robbins and more than a dozen other drivers will make the trip up to three times a day for the foreseeable future so drivers in Spokane, Coeur d’Alene and much of the Inland Northwest can make trips to work and the grocery store.

The massive fuel-hauling effort was organized after the confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes declined last week to renew Yellowstone Pipe Line Co.’s easements across their 1.25-million-acre reservation in western Montana.

About 40 percent of the gasoline and petroleum products sold at Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area gas stations normally passes through Yellowstone’s pipeline.

To keep the fuel moving, Yellowstone has built a facility at Thompson Falls. Tankers fill up at the Missoula end of the Billings pipeline, then dump their cargo back into the pipeline at Thompson Falls for shipment to Spokane and Moses Lake. Monday was the first full day of operation at the facility.

Conoco and Exxon are the majority owners of Yellowstone Pipe Line. They hired a Texas company to haul the fuel.

Monday, Conoco spokesman John Bennitt stood by as trucks were unloading atop trays designed to capture any escaping gasoline. The gas is pumped into eight tanks - four Conoco, four Exxon - also surrounded by a berm to contain spills.

A 2,000-horsepower pump that normally moves the fuel from Missoula then pumps it from the tanks into the pipeline, which has a twofoot section removed to indicate where the flow is cut off.

“This is not a particularly complex project,” he said. “The off-loading process is almost identical to what you would see at a gasoline station.”

Without giving numbers, however, he conceded trucking would be costly compared with piping, perhaps adding 4 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas in Spokane.

But the extra shipping should not slow the flow of gasoline, he said. “Even at high-season volumes.”

Bennitt said Conoco would begin placing emergency-response equipment worth about $12,000 along the truck route next week. The company will spend another $15,000 training local response units.

If there is an accident, teams should be able to respond quickly, with backup from Missoula or other cities within a few hours.

Lack of timely response to past spills was among the concerns voiced by tribal chairman, Mickey Pablo Monday. Others are the integrity of the 40-year old pipeline built to dated standards, the modest financial incentives for continued use of the right of way, and almost unanimous tribal opposition to its renewal.

Historically, Pablo said, most Yellowstone pipeline spills have occurred on the reservation despite the fact only about 10 percent of its 558-mile line crosses reservation land.

He said financial terms contained in Yellowstone Pipe Line proposals are not in proportion to the almost $20 million a tribal consultant estimated the company made each year on its operations.

Pablo said the company has misplayed its political hand by appearing to take right-of-way renewal for granted. The latest gaff, he said, was an attempt by the company to have the Bureau of Indian Affairs grant an extension of the pipeline easement as trustee for the tribes.

Yellowstone negotiator, David Vanderpool, said the company had held off on its proposal for a longterm extension while awaiting the environmental impact statement. Among the proposal’s other features are financial guarantees in the event of future spills, he noted.