LEWISTON – With car headlights casting their shadows against a wall of the Clearwater River Valley on Nez Perce lands Tuesday night, protesters once again gathered in an attempt to block passage of a truck bearing an oversize load of oil refinery equipment bound for Canada.
But their protest was swept to the side of the road by police by press time, as the Omega Morgan truck hauling 322 tons of equipment rolled by to a chorus of boos. A similar protest successfully barred the truck’s path for more than four hours Monday night. Tuesday’s gathering attracted about 50 participants just before 10 p.m., some bearing glowsticks to illuminate the pitch-black roadway.
The gathering drew a cross-section of activists, some concerned about tribal sovereignty and others about the environmental impact of both the trucks and the oil refining process its load is destined for.
“To me, this is the only way we’re going to get them to listen to us,” said DelRae Kipp, one of 19 protesters arrested early Tuesday, shortly before the truck began moving.
Elliott Moffett, a tribal member, said the protest is about asserting tribal sovereignty. The protest occurred on the edge of the Nez Perce reservation.
“The federal government have a trust responsibility to protect our treaty rights,” Moffett said.
Members of the Wild Idaho Rising Tide environmental group were also on hand to aid the blockade: Cass Davis said the ideal outcome of the protest was to draw attention to the environmentally destructive nature of tar sands refining.
“People need to be aware of the Alberta tar sands,” said Davis, who has protested megaload trucks traveling through Idaho before. “People need to be aware of environmental plunder.”
Anthony Johnson, a member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said reasonable disobedience was the goal of Tuesday night’s efforts.
“The best possible outcome would be no arrests and nobody getting hurt,” Johnson said.
Tribe member Julian Matthews criticized elected officials at the national and state level Tuesday afternoon for ignoring appeals to halt megaload shipments. He has been a critic of such shipments since 2010, when oil refinery equipment began arriving in the Port of Lewiston for transport up U.S. Highway 12 unimpeded by overpasses.
A federal court order in February mandated approval from the tribe and the Forest Service for the shipment, being transported by Oregon-based hauling company Omega Morgan. The Idaho Transportation Department approved a permit for the transport, which the tribe says violated that order. Rick Brazell, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests supervisor, said Tuesday he supported the emotion of the tribe in blocking the truck but said passion alone would not protect his agency from lawsuits if they ordered the shipment to stop.
“You can’t make decisions just on emotion,” Brazell said. “You’ve got to have the facts. That’s how you win the war.”
To get those facts, Brazell said, the department plans to speed up studies to determine the environmental and cultural effects of the megaload shipments. They also plan to meet formally with tribal leadership later this month to address their concerns and draft an official joint statement.
“We want to … have an informed decision that withstands the muster of a legal challenge,” Brazell said Tuesday.
The 255-foot-long evaporator, covered in a white tarp and resembling the upper half of a rocket intended for space travel, sat in the median of the roadway Tuesday afternoon under guard about a mile east of the casino. Matthews said the truck began to move around 2:30 a.m. Crews had intended to reach Peck, Idaho, about 25 miles farther along U.S. 12, by sunrise Tuesday.
Omega Morgan spokeswoman Olga Haley said truck crews “are just trying to get the job done.” The company had no comment on the protests, saying its commitment was to truck the load across Idaho and into Canada safely. Initial plans said that task was to end Thursday when the trucks passed over the state line into Montana.
In a statement Tuesday, Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairman Silas Whitman praised the protest effort and tribal police for their handling of the situation. Committee members present at Monday night’s protest were arrested and cited for disorderly conduct by tribal police, which irked some tribe members because the police force answers to the committee.
“It would be inconsistent for us to protest the U.S. government’s failure to enforce a lawful court order while, at the same time, attempting to stop our Tribal Police from enforcing our laws,” Whitman said in the statement. “The members of the (executive committee) willingly, intentionally and peacefully submitted themselves to the lawful authority of the police on our Reservation.”