Idaho & Montana Tar Sands Megaload Protests! Salmon 1-5-14 (Wild Idaho Rising Tide photos)
On Saturday, January 4, the first Omega Morgan-hauled tar sands megaload to cross southern Idaho left Howe after 10 pm, despite earlier, conflicting reports that the convoy would not move that night. Miscommunication slowed its launch for 45 minutes, as the Idaho State Police (ISP), Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), and Omega Morgan failed to inform the Butte County sheriff deputy and local law enforcement and first responders of the transport’s departure. Locals decried the lack of notice, protecting the big rig from ‘evil’ protesters, while risking the death or property loss of citizens. The megaload headed up Highway 28 over Gilmore Pass and through Leadore, to park about four or five miles before Salmon, almost to the 28 Club Restaurant, along the south side of Highway 28.
Occupying most of a large pull-out adjacent to the Lemhi L6 diversion and fish screen and ladder, next to the Lemhi River at the foot of the first bridge over it southeast of town, the megaload perched precariously close to the aquatic home of threatened Columbia Basin bull trout, Snake River Basin steelhead, and Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon. The public has spent millions of dollars to help restore these rare fish and their critical habitats in riparian areas that also host nesting and wintering bald eagles, golden eagles, sage grouse, and other imperiled species.
During the sunny Sunday of January 5, people gawked, took photos, and chatted with the two security guards, without protesters or real police or sheriffs in sight, at the big tourist event that even attracted Idaho Falls folks, who were in the area with their children for a weekend hockey tournament. Apparently in Idaho, size matters, but so does climate change! The first passage of megaloads through southern Idaho presented great opportunities for Wild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT) activists to educate citizens and raise money for the anti-tar sands cause, by distributing brochures and information to onlookers and selling hot chocolate, coffee, donuts, and perhaps even T-shirts with a map of megaload stops.
But such endeavors would risk injury from passing motorists going about 70 miles per hour. Instead of protecting the massive rig from protesters, the sheriff and deputies should have been protecting gawkers from being struck by unassuming highway users. No warning signs, flaggers, or police alerted drivers to roadway congestion around the parked megaload, at least not in the direction from Salmon heading towards Baker.
As of the Thursday before the Sunday, January 5, first tar sands shipment through Salmon, Omega Morgan had not notified the Custer Telephone Cooperative of impending oversize loads, as required by state law due to megaload heights. The newest competitor with CenturyLink, “CusterTel” has strung the typically lowest phone, internet, and cable television lines over area streets, lower than Idaho Power wires. The transport must clear a low-hanging, T1 fiber optic cable owned by the Coop, which supplies the hospital, clinic, and Veterans Administration clinic.
For months, Salmon area residents have been eager to witness and document the 901,000-pound, 376-foot-long behemoth cross the Salmon River on the only bridge in the city, just west of downtown Salmon, and immediately make a sharp, right, 90-degree turn at the base of the bridge, on U.S. Highway 93 north towards Lost Trail Pass, the Montana-Idaho state line, and beyond. By 11 pm on Sunday, January 5, a crowd of more than 100 people gathered to watch the first Omega Morgan tar sands megaload cross over the Salmon River Bridge from Main Street. Salmon regional folks are accustomed to cold weather viewing, even at night, as they watch outdoor ice hockey games and tournaments of youth and adult leagues. The entire spectrum of local gawkers endured the bone-chilling, midnight cold near the river for the occasion – from those who attend Arts Council concerts and library reading club lectures to those who go to car shows, demolition derbies, and stock car races.
The glaring lights and motions of the convoy in the dark valley below the Beaverhead Range of the Bitterroot Mountains offered a somewhat psychedelic experience, reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Those same dynamics, however, presented challenges for onlookers using digital cameras to photograph the huge, brightly-lit transport at night, learning how to control exposure, aperture, and stability to obtain usable, time-and date-stamped photos for legal proof or evidence.
The oversize load procession moved slowly, but strangely attracted so many people standing in frigid temperatures late on a Sunday night. Locals suggested that, if nothing else, WIRT volunteers could have “tabled” or handed out fact sheets to the cold, waiting crowd, perhaps with gratis hot drinks and popcorn, to spread the anti-megaload message to adversely affected communities. WIRT missed chances to raise funds with commemorative, thermal, hooded sweatshirts displaying slogans like “Megaload – 2013-2014 Idaho Tour – Salmon” on the front and “Size Matters” on the back, benefitting our favorite grassroots organization. An artistic cartoon illustration of a megaload crossing a failed bridge that later falls into the river, adorning a long-sleeved T-shirt or hat with the WIRT logo, could have also earned some proceeds.
WIRT’s anonymous observers did not see if the convoy snaked its way through Salmon’s two sets of Main Street traffic lights or if ITD or city personnel loosened and swung the signals out of the way. In case of emergencies, first responders, including volunteer fire fighters, police officers, two fire trucks, and ambulances, parked on both sides of the bridge, planning to use foot bridges over the Salmon River to rescue and roll any patients to waiting ambulances and the hospital on other side. Seven state police vehicles, Lemhi County sheriffs, and probably the entire City of Salmon Police Department, including county and city K-9 units, secured the scene, leaving few other patrol cars in action for Idahoans out on rural roads. ISP supposedly hired the local tow truck operator, to stand by with a car-carrier rig, in case “insurgents” blocked the bridge with immobilized vehicles and chained volunteers. Police also purportedly brought cutting tools with them, like bolt cutters and perhaps the “jaws of life.”
All the while, blockaders passed before their eyes, in the forms of pull and push trucks, trailers, and a colossal load. Maneuvering the hard right-angle turn after the bridge, Omega Morgan blocked traffic for about an hour or longer, with its megaload creeping over the river bridge for at least 45 minutes, until 11:20 pm. Remote control operators running quickly side to side steered the transport away from hitting traffic signs in the middle of Highway 93, which workers did not remove prior to load arrival. When the monstrosity finally cleared the bridge, the highway still did not open for travelers heading north to Carmen, North Fork, Gibbonsville, and Montana’s Bitterroot Valley and Missoula – all trapped behind the garish parade and police.
Rated as failing and in need of replacement in the National Bridge Inventory, the Carmen Bridge downstream of Salmon, Idaho, afforded the next megaload obstacle. When questioned by reporters about its failing substructure and the river relocation of substrate away from its bridge footings, ITD dubiously changed its stance and reported an 87 percent bridge rating of the Carmen Bridge. This span may eventually collapse, but probably not while a megaload traverses it. In its wake, the state could criminally declare that its replacement should be funded by Idaho taxpayers and federal highway dollars, not by Omega Morgan, because it was a failing bridge.
Although some observers speculated that the big load would proceed through Salmon and stop at the weigh station near the Lemhi County Fairgrounds, or pull over near a Gibbonsville historic sign, it completed its Sunday, January 5, leg by heading up to the base of Lost Trail Pass. It then awaited a Montana transportation permit and passage into Big Sky Country at a Highway 93 pull-out north of Gibbonsville, Idaho, possibly designated for winter chaining-up before attempting the switch-backs on both sides of the pass.
Why should taxpayers, not oil, gas, and tar sands producers, be burdened with payment for broken bridges, smashed vehicles, or damaged roads imposed by Omega Morgan and other megaload haulers? An independent structural engineer, perhaps a university associate or retired expert, could write a ‘white paper’ to expose the impacts of repeated heavy loads on older, decrepit infrastructure, such as bridges and rail lines, particularly during harsh, brittle winter months. Although divergent from the usually stated opposition to tar sands, megaloads, and crude fuel shipments, a message of fiscal responsibility could attract a different audience and new potential allies.
So why is Idaho bending over for Omega Morgan, General Electric, and tar sands exploiters? The state did not even require a bond from Omega Morgan, just in case of accidents. The company shipped its loads up the Columbia River to the Port Umatilla, Oregon, never entering the Snake River and Lewiston area ports that help justify fish-killing dams and reservoirs. In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision, Idahoans wonder about state government corruption by large campaign donations during an election year for the Idaho legislature and governor.
(Photos and descriptions provided by an anonymous Wild Idaho Rising Tide scout)