Protesters in Umatilla, Oregon, blocked mega-loads headed for the Alberta oil sands in early December.

Portland Rising Tide

Protesters in Umatilla, Oregon, blocked mega-loads headed for the Alberta oil sands in early December.

Umatilla Tribe Battles Mega-Loads Headed for Alberta Oil Sands

Cathy Sampson-Kruse (Confederated Tribes of Umatilla) and her Walla Walla ancestors come from the land near the Port of Umatilla in Eastern Oregon, where on December 3 a 901,000-pound mega-load was about to embark to Alberta, Canada, to be used in the extraction of viscous crude bitumen from the province’s notorious oil sands.

According to witnesses, the giant rig started moving around 7:30 p.m., even though it was not legally permitted to travel until 8 p.m., and Sampson-Kruse dropped to the ground and refused to move.

“This has gone too far. Our children are going to die from this,” Sampson-Kruse said in an online video posted by the environmental activist group Portland Rising Tide. “If we don’t stop this now . . . [future generations] are going to ask, ‘Where were you?’ ‘Where was our tribe?’ “

Shortly after Sampson-Kruse’s demonstration, the mega-load, which is 22 feet wide, 18 feet tall and 376 feet long, had to stop south of Pendleton due to inclement weather and was still idle as of December 8.

During two days of protest, Sampson-Kruse and two other activists were arrested for disorderly conduct, but they along with about 70 other activists largely succeeded in at least temporarily stopping the mega-load from traversing the tribal lands of the Umatilla and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said Trip Jennings of Portland Rising Tide.

The night before Sampson-Kruse was arrested, two other activists delayed the mega-load by locking themselves to the vehicles. They too were also arrested. The three activists were released within 24 hours and have pled not guilty, Jennings said.

Kayla Godowa-Tufti, a Warm Springs tribal member, said the shipment was illegal because neither of the tribes have been consulted or given their approval for the shipment despite its route through tribal territory.

“They don’t want to uphold these treaty rights,” she said. “They just want to go through with business as usual even though the Tar Sands industry is destructive to the planet and driving climate change.”

Because of the potential danger that oil sands crude poses to the environment, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which includes the Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama and Nez Perce tribes, passed a resolution in September opposing the transportation of mega-loads through tribal territories.

RELATED: Just Say No Mega-load! Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Joins Protest

The loads have already been prohibited along a scenic highway that winds through Nez Perce tribal territory.

RELATED: Judge Just Says No to Mega-Loads Through Nez Perce Reservation

Godowa-Tufti added that mega-loads of this size are unprecedented and that existing infrastructure might not be able to handle the weight. This could pose a threat to tribal resources when they pass through her tribe’s sensitive salmon and forest conservation areas, she said.

In Idaho, the Nez Perce also have fiercely defended their territory from the mega-loads too, which resulted in numerous arrests earlier this year.

RELATED: Nez Perce Leaders Stand Firm on Frontlines of Mega-Load Transport

Oregon Department of Transportation officials are not required by law to consult with tribes before issuing mega-load shipment permits, but the department is currently reviewing its consultation polices after the demonstrations, said Public Information Officer Tom Strandberg.

Described on the permit as a water purifier, the giant device is one of three mega-loads scheduled to traverse the region to Canada, Jennings said.

“They want to make this a permanent route for the mega-loads, and we don’t want that to happen,” Godowa-Tufti said.

The oil sands are located beneath a region of boreal forest and wetlands the size of Florida, and extracting unrefined bitumen requires massive amounts of water and creates toxic waste, according to many environmentalists and tribal officials. The carbon emissions caused by the use of this oil, a heavier form of crude, would also be catastrophic to efforts to curb climate change, they say.

Godowa-Tufti said she believes, based on her research and videos posted by some of the oil companies themselves, that the water purifier is actually a device that separates the bitumen from the sand. The day after Sampson-Kruse’s arrest, the activists and tribal member held a ceremony at the site, Godowa-Tufti said. The activists have been re-organizing this week and are heading back to the area soon.

“What has been most memorable is seeing how we’re family out there, and seeing the power of prayer,” Godowa-Tufti said. “Once the snow stopped it from moving, the elders were saying that was the power of Mother Nature at work.”

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