Every day, a line of gray tank cars rolls between Missoula and Thompson Falls – reminders of another time an oil company got in a fight with Indian tribes over a pipeline.
With international attention focusing on the Standing Rock Sioux’s protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes fought and won a similar battle with Yellowstone Pipeline Co. (YPL) in 1995.
A 10,000-gallon gasoline leak at Camas Creek near Hot Springs in 1993 put YPL in a difficult negotiating position just as its 20-year permit to cross the Flathead Indian Reservation was up for renewal. Then-Tribal Chairman Mickey Pablo said the Tribal Council “was being extra careful” about a new deal in light of at least three serious spills on the reservation from the 40-year-old pipeline.
The line delivered gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel 644 miles from Billings to Moses Lake, Washington. About 21 miles of that sat on reservation land between Evaro Hill and Plains. In addition to the Camas Creek spill, a break at Magpie Creek released about 163,000 gallons of fuel. Both leaks were reported by passing motorists and not the pipeline company; Camas Creek’s break reportedly ran 45 days before discovery.
“The belief among many tribal members is that the risk associated with this pipeline is too great, that enough is enough,” CSKT environmental protection division manager Bill Swaney told the Missoulian in 1994. “To the tribes, it’s not a question of money, but a question of trying to protect the environment. Many in the tribal public don’t want to take this chance anymore. The pipeline’s track record has been fairly dismal.”
At the time, YPL was jointly owned by Conoco Inc., Exxon and Union Oil Co. It’s now managed by Phillips 66, whose spokesman, Dennis Nuss, had no comment on the past ownership’s record of the events. The present YPL did earn praise from Missoula County officials last month for its safety improvements to pipeline crossings of Rattlesnake Creek and the Clark Fork River.
In 1995, YPL offered a deal paying between $25 million and $30 million over 20 years for a lease renewal across the reservation. Tribal officials said the previous 20-year deal only paid about $250,000 and was accompanied by the environmental disasters. Former CSKT Natural Resources Department Director Sam Morigeau described the cleanup efforts as “cat-box technology.”
“We basically had to leverage whatever we could (to get effective cleanup at the Magpie site),” Morigeau told the Missoulian in 1995. “If they (YPL) were as environmentally conscious as they say, they would have done something about it sooner. I think they would have walked away from it if we hadn’t pressured them.”
The CSKT Tribal Council voted in early 1995 not to renew the lease. On April 20, 1995, pipeline managers turned off the flow at Missoula and started transferring the fuel to trucks and rail cars to Thompson Falls.
That triggered four years and approximately $5 million in environmental reviews of YPL proposals to build a new pipeline around the Flathead Reservation. Lolo National Forest officials preferred a 140-mile route along Interstate 90, while the company pushed for a 65-mile passage through the Ninemile Valley.
YPL gave up the effort in 2000 as “futile” according to then-President William Hicks, who cited a loss of confidence in the fairness and objectivity of the Lolo National Forest process. Then-Lolo Supervisor Debbie Austin defended her agency’s work to the Missoulian, saying intense public interest and company application amendments, not bureaucratic missteps, delayed the environmental review.
YPL’s Nuss said the company has no current plans to change the rail shipment system between Missoula and Thompson Falls. A river-crossing structure near Perma has been removed, making the remaining parts of the pipeline unusable across the Flathead Indian Reservation.