Eugene Weekly : Cover Story : 9.2.2010


Rage Against the Machines
Giant loads of dirty fossil fuel equipment are going up the Columbia River

Picture the oil monsters: Giant earth gobbling machines, bigger than a brontosaurus, slowly barging up the Columbia River, making their ponderous way past endangered salmon, through the craggy gorge to the Snake River and then bellying up to a dock at the Port of Lewiston where they hit the highways. They’re coming our way in a scheme called the Kearl Module Transport Project (KMTP). Former Green Party vice-presidential candidate and Native American (Anishinaabe) activist Winona LaDuke says, “There’s no history of anything of this scope. The highway system is going to be crushed by the loads.”

An example of what a KMTP load will look like — bigger than a brontosaurus (apatosaurus if you’re nitpicky). Photo courtesy Imperial Oil
Winona LaDuke. Photo by Todd Cooper.
Patricia Weber. Photo by Todd Cooper.

Pius Rolheiser, spokesman for the dubiously named Imperial Oil, says the behemoth shipments — the largest of which is 210 feet long, 30 feet high, 24 feet wide and weighing 500,000 pounds — are nontoxic. “People have expressed concern about these modules potentially containing hazardous chemicals or whatever, but until they arrive on site and are assembled, they contain no hazardous chemicals,” he says.

The hazardous chemicals come into play at the Alberta tar sands (aka the Alberta or Athabasca oil sands). What was once a carbon-storing boreal forest is becoming a vast mined wasteland, and if the Kearl project succeeds the machines will begin swallowing bitumen and spitting out dirty oil. Oregon will be the gateway to this fossil fuel hell.

A Canadian oil company controlled by ExxonMobil, Imperial Oil is one of the companies in the business of extracting oil from the Alberta tar sands. Opponents to tar sands extraction call it a dirty open-pit mining process that destroys forests and poisons land, water and people. Imperial Oil’s Kearl Module Transport Project involves building massive oil-extracting machinery in South Korea, shipping it across the Pacific to the mouth of the Columbia and barging it up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to Idaho, where it will be placed on super-sized trucks and shipped through Idaho and Montana to Canada. Conservationists, concerned citizens and environmental justice advocates like LaDuke are trying to get the project stopped in Idaho and Montana. But the KMTP has flown under Oregon’s radar, and it’s not clear if there’s anything this state can do to keep the machines from coming.

A recent advertisement placed in The New Yorker by the folks from the Alberta tar sands reads: “A good neighbour lends you a cup of sugar. A great neighbour supplies you with 1.4 million barrels of oil a day.” (FYI, that’s how they spell neighbor in Canada). Rolheiser says the project is “a large vital source of energy for a growing North American market.”

Patricia Weber of Corvallis, an electrical engineer and land use planner working with LaDuke and the coalition All Against the Haul on stopping the KMTP, says the Kearl project “is the Gulf oil spill to the north of us that nobody knows about, in terms of ecosystem destruction.” 


Ruin: The Tar Sands

If oil is the addictive drug the U.S. is trying to kick, then the pusher keeping us hooked isn’t some Middle East country; it’s that mellow nation to the north, Canada. It’s our top supplier of foreign oil -— Canada provides almost 20 percent. Currently about half of what we get from the Canucks is a result of tar sands extraction. According to Imperial Oil’s website, the tar sands project can provide oil for the next 40 years to the tune of 300,000 barrels of oil per day.

“Imperial Oil is firmly of the belief that the oil sands can be developed responsibly and in a sustainable manner,” Rolheiser says.

LaDuke begs to differ. She and her Native-led environmental group Honor the Earth say that on top of devastating the boreal forest — the second largest intact forest in the world, second to the Amazon — and affecting fish and wildlife, the Kearl and other oil sands projects are poisoning Canada’s First Nations people. She says the small First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan, located near the oil sands, has had 100 deaths attributed to cancer in a community of only 1,200. LaDuke blames the toxic oil sands extraction and the poisons it’s leaving behind. The Canadian oil sands project is one of the largest industrial projects on Earth. 

The group ForestEthics is asking U.S. corporations to avoid using tar sands oil. Walgreens, Whole Foods and Bed, Bath and Beyond have already signed on, and the Canadian press reports that The Gap, Timberland and Levi Strauss told their transportation contractors they will give preference to those who avoid oil sands fuels. 

NASA climate scientist James Hansen, one of the first researchers to bring global warming to the world’s attention, wrote about the project in a 2009 editorial: “The tar sands of Canada constitute one of our planet’s greatest threats. They are a double-barreled threat. First, producing oil from tar sands emits two-to-three times the global warming pollution of conventional oil. But the process also diminishes one of the best carbon-reduction tools on the planet: Canada’s boreal forest.”

First the forests are logged, slowly turning the green vegetation in an area the size of Florida to a desert of sand and mud; then the land is cleared of what the oil companies call “overburden,” the former C02-storing forestland and muskeg (bog land). After the top layer of earth has been scraped away, mining can begin. Some exploitation of the tar sands is done by in situ mining, in which steam is injected into an oil deposit to heat the sand and lower the viscosity of the bitumen. The heated bitumen migrates towards producing wells, where it’s brought to the surface. Right now, however, it’s mostly open pit mining.

Brobdingnagian machines weighing millions of pounds, some standing three stories high, dig up the sands, then dump the bitumen-bearing earth, also called ore grade, into giant trucks. The trucks, far more massive than any monster truck you’ll see at the Cottage Grove Speedway, haul the bitumen to be crushed in giant drums. Hot water is added to make slurry, which is further diluted and separated until it becomes froth — 60 percent bitumen, 30 percent water and 10 percent solids. The froth is mixed with a solvent, and hydrogen is used to break up the long carbon molecules to make synthetic oil products.

The process leaves behind toxic mine tailings in ponds, and it draws vast amounts from the waterways. According to a study released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Aug. 30, oil sands extraction has left elevated levels of mercury, lead, arsenic and 10 other toxic elements in the Athabasca River. In 2008, some 500 migrating ducks died when they landed in a toxic Syncrude tailings pond (Imperial has a 25 percent stake in Syncrude). Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board conditionally approved Imperial Oil’s plan to handle waste from its Kearl oil sands project this month, but Imperial has said it would not be able to meet clean-up targets for the first six years of operations at the Kearl project because it needs time to work on new technology.

 Weber says, “It’s not simple oil; it has to be extracted. It takes a tremendous amount of water and tremendous amount of natural gas.”

The natural gas is used to heat the water for oil extraction. In a circular sort of fossil foolishness, the oil companies are using one fossil fuel to extract another one. Weber says, “It’s kind of like a monster with all these tentacles. The head is the tar sands. We’re trying to go after the tentacles as we can.”


Roads: Highway to Hell

The tentacle that folks in the U.S. have been going after so far is the roads. 

Comparing a KMTP load to a dinosaur is actually a bit skewed. The loads are bigger than a brontosaurus, and they weigh a lot more. Activists compare the size of a load to the Statue of Liberty. The longest load is actually a good 50 feet longer than the height of Lady Liberty from her heels to her torch. The Statue of Liberty weighs in at 450,000 pounds of copper and steel. A KMTP load can weigh up to half a million pounds — 50,000 more than the statute.

So how do you move a load as long as a hockey rink, as high as a three story building, and heavier than the our symbolic beacon of liberty?

The short answer is: very carefully. But the long answer is a little more complicated. 

Imperial Oil’s Rolheiser says before choosing the route on U.S. roadways, the company explored “a number of other alternatives.”

He says, “Generally speaking, the route we selected was driven by the size of the modules. The modules are too large to be transported on an interstate highway.” Anything with an overpass, he says, “is a non-starter.”

Once the loads are removed from the barges at the Port of Lewiston, they will be placed onto massive Mammoet truck and trailer rigs (mammoet is Dutch for mammoth). The trailers, Rolheiser says, have up to 14 axles. He says the distribution force on a highway roadbed is like a semi truck. 

LaDuke and Weber are skeptical — 207 loads, weighing up to 500,000 pounds, amounts to a little bit more than a semi-truck, which legally tops out at 80,000 pounds. 

The route crosses bridges, goes over tall mountain passes and through national forests and tribal lands, and along a wild and scenic river. The monster loads start in Idaho and take Highway 12, following the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway through wild areas along the wild salmon and steelhead bearing Lochsa River in Idaho, over Lolo Pass into Montana through the town of Missoula, up Highway 200, over the Continental Divide and then up to Canada.

The route follows a road more narrow and windy than Oregon’s Highway 126 out the McKenzie, and like that highway, it is right up against a river. It goes through Missoula — a college town not unlike Eugene. Bob Gentry, a Montana attorney working to stop the loads, says that traffic signals in Missoula would be put on swivel bases to let the loads pass.

When she saw the proposed route, LaDuke says her first thought was “Are you guys high?”

Oregon’s Rep. Peter DeFazio recently was alerted to the KMTP issue, which has been kept so quiet there were no news stories about it prior to December 2009. The representative says: “I knew about tar sands. I knew about the extraction, but I didn’t know that anyone was intending to move super-giant-sized loads over roads and bridges in the United States to deliver machinery to extract tar sands in Canada.” DeFazio is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“There are huge questions here, and this has been pretty much under the radar,” DeFazio adds.

In order to get the trucks down roads not engineered for loads so large, Imperial Oil plans to bury power lines in the Lolo National Forest and along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. Rolheiser says Imperial will construct, improve or widen turnouts along the route, so the trucks can pull over in the case of bad weather, and also because Idaho and Montana have 10 minute rules for traffic — each state’s law says traffic cannot be held up for more than that amount of time. Opponents see no way the ponderous vehicles could move fast enough to allow for only 10-minute hold ups. And Gentry says in Montana alone the project would build 53 new highway turnouts and modify or lengthen 22 existing turnouts with potential ecological effects on the nearby rivers.

The loads will roll mainly at night, and people have asked about what will happen if a load stops traffic and an emergency vehicle needs to get through. This concern is one of the things holding up a similar shipment of four sauropodian-sized heavy haul loads from ConocoPhillips that have been stalled since May at the Port of Lewiston. An Idaho judge ordered the state’s transportation department to review ConocoPhillips’ application and said that the state did not address the “inevitable” accident or breakdown that could shut Highway 12 for days or weeks, as well as overlooking “the quintessential disaster and its effects on the users of Highway 12.”

Rolheiser says for its part, Imperial Oil isn’t planning on having any accidents. “Our plan is as I mentioned based on moving them as safely and efficiently as we can so we don’t have an incident.”

Rolheiser also says Imperial Oil will cover the costs of “any work associated with the infrastructures changes,” even the costs of the highway patrol and escorts for the wide loads. 

But DeFazio says his office looked into the KMTP and discovered that the Idaho Department of Transportation has applied for a competitive federal TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) grant. The grant application references improving the port for the Kearl project several times, adding that “Idaho’s Congressional Delegation has written a letter of support encouraging the utilization of the Port of Lewiston for shipments to the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada.” 

DeFazio has made inquiries to the federal highway division and had no response, so he has sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and asked him to have his staff scrutinize the super-oversized loads.

“I just think that’s outrageous. This is all to benefit one corporation and a foreign country,” DeFazio says.

Weber says that KMTP opponents fear that the wild and scenic river and popular recreation area might become a thoroughfare not just for Imperial Oil’s massive loads, but for other oil companies looking to exploit the tar sands. The Idaho TIGER grant says once the improvements are in place, other oil companies may want to use the new transportation route in the future.

Oregon’s 4th District congressman says he also wonders if the uber-heavy machines will cross any federally funded bridges. A map from a Mammoet document detailing the route shows it crosses seven overpasses on I-90 and a bridge over the Clark Fork River. Gentry says the route crosses a number of U.S. highway bridges as well, and “I don’t think anyone has done the prerequisite inspection of bridges to see if each structure can support these loads.”

The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) did a state Environmental Assessment examining the project in its roads, a process Gentry calls a “mini-NEPA.” MDT has said it won’t release the statement until September but an EW search found an MDT document dated August 2010 that issues a “finding of no significant impact” (FONSI), meaning that that more detailed environmental impact statement that KMTP opponents have called for won’t happen.


Rivers: Oil and Water Don’t Mix

 LaDuke and Weber say that one concern that hasn’t been fully addressed is what happens if one of these loads falls into the pristine Lochsa or Blackfoot Rivers. How exactly do you get a half-million pounds or so of machinery back on the road and what happens to the salmon and other fish?

The FONSI document says Imperial Oil has come up with a plan, but according to Sam Mace of Save Our Wild Salmon, “If one of the loads goes into the river, they can’t just pick it up and put it back on the trucks.” She says a crane of that size would have to come in from Seattle or Portland. 

She says the likeliest section for an accident to happen is the most winding one and to get the module out, they would have to build a giant base for the crane. Concrete supports would possibly go in the river itself, causing more sedimentation and damage.

“This overarching issue is that we’re allowing ExxonMobil to use our river corridor and our wild and scenic roads up there to transport equipment to one of the biggest polluting projects in North America,” Mace says.

She says her coalition represents a diverse coalition of groups from fisherman to conservationists. Their concern is with the project’s effects on wild salmon and steelhead, not only because of the tar sands’ impact on climate change but because of its direct impact on the rivers due to construction and possible accidents.

The salmon and steelhead that swim up the Columbia are the same ones that make the long journey to Lochsa River in Idaho and beyond. “What happens to habitat in Idaho affects Oregon fisherman,” Mace says.

Brett VandenHeuvel of Columbia Riverkeeper, a group that works to protect the water and life connected to waterway, says there are multiple listed salmon species that would be affected by this project. Echoing the sentiments of others, he says the contents of the loads aren’t hazardous until they reach the tar sands. Bur he says, when it comes to pollution and environmental justice, “There certainly federal and national issues.”

Problems that affect Oregon’s fish also affect fisherman, tribes and the state’s economy. But no one in Oregon seems to know very much about the project. Most people don’t even know it exists, and certain details are still unclear. Some documents say the modules are coming through the Port of Portland; Rolheiser says they are coming through Vancouver, Wash.; and no one seems to know if there’s anything Oregonians can do to stop the Goliaths.

Scott Clemans of the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams on the Columbia, says he isn’t aware of any permits needed from the Corps for the leviathan loads. He says the Coast Guard issues permits for hazardous shipments like liquefied natural gas tankers. “We don’t really permit things that go on the Columbia,” Clemans says. “If it can fit into the navigation locks, then it’s good enough for us.” 

Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission asks: “Is this an appropriate use of the Columbia/Snake system to facilitate the fossil fuel industry in an era when we are trying very hard to move in the other direction, on a river system that is trying to become more integrated with renewable energy?”

Gentry says, optimistically, “There’s a very strong argument there should be a federal review with the Forest Service, the Army Corps or the EPA. Nobody’s taken a look at the cumulative environmental impact of the final project,” thanks to what he calls its improper segmentation.

Right now, courts in Montana and Idaho are pitting the little guys versus Imperial Oil over the modules. Imperial Oil wants to see the hulking shipments get underway in October, and to finish by November 2011. The oil company wants their tar sands oil extraction to begin in 2012 — doomsday for the environment, and the day we begin to go the way of the dinosaurs.

For more information on Winona LaDuke and the tar sands, go to 

Read more about Save Our Wild Salmon’s efforts against the KMTP at

And you can find Patricia Weber and other members of the coalition at  









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