The explosion shook the ground beneath the Umatilla Indian Reservation and unleashed a massive fireball that roared up to 500 feet into the air.
On Jan. 2, 1999, a natural gas pipeline ruptured about a mile south of Cayuse at the base of the Blue Mountains, triggering the blast that left behind a large crater and sent shrapnel flying hundreds of feet.
“It sounded like a jet engine had crashed,” remembers Chuck Sams, now the communications director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Fortunately, no one was hurt and no homes damaged in the accident, but for tribal officials it underscored the potential danger of fossil fuel pipelines criss-crossing the landscape where American Indians live, hunt and retain cultural resources.
Now as protesters clash with police over the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, Sams said the CTUIR knows firsthand that some utilities simply are not capable of protecting tribal resources and treaty rights.
“For the Standing Rock Reservation, that’s what they’re trying to do,” Sams said.
There are actually two underground pipelines that run underneath the Umatilla Indian Reservation — neither of which were originally negotiated by the CTUIR. The Northwest Pipeline, owned and operated by the Williams Companies, is what blew up on the reservation nearly 18 years ago. The entire line spans 4,000 miles over six western states, with the capacity to carry 3.9 million dekatherms of Rocky Mountain natural gas per day.
The other line is owned by Tesoro Corporation, an independent refiner and marketer of petroleum products based in San Antonio. Its Northwest Products System pipeline stretches 760 miles from Salt Lake City to Spokane, Washington. It transports gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
Both lines converge on the reservation east of Pendleton, and were essentially inherited by the tribes. The right-of-way for each was settled in the 1950s by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. At the time the CTUIR government was not developed to the point where it could provide much technical or legal analysis.
It wasn’t until President Gerald Ford signed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 that tribes, including the CTUIR, assumed greater control over their own welfare. The legislation also authorized the government to deal directly with federally recognized tribes.
“Those were the beginning days of the tribes developing government infrastructure to take over these rights-of-way with the natural gas companies,” said longtime CTUIR attorney Dan Hester. “If there is a problem with the pipeline, we know who to call, and they know who to call.”
The Tesoro line, through the BIA, was granted a permanent easement in 1970, Hester said. The original six-inch line was built in 1950, but has not been used for the past 20 years. Another eight-inch line was built in 1957, running parallel to the first line, which is what carries petroleum products today.
Company spokesman Brendan Smith said spills of any volume are unacceptable, and Tesoro conducts roughly 30 spill response drills annually across the system.
In North Dakota, protesters have raised concerns over the Dakota Access Pipeline potentially spilling crude oil into the Missouri River, which is the reservation’s primary source of drinking water. Energy Transfer Partners is the developer of that project, reaching from the Bakken oil fields into Illinois.
Dave Tovey, executive director for the CTUIR, said Tesoro is “very responsive” and is out performing maintenance work on the line all the time. Meanwhile, though the tribes have inherited the lines, he said they are now in charge of shaping how the companies will compensate landowners and bolster public safety in the event of an emergency.
“Right or wrong, good or bad, we want to build systems to manage (pipelines) and ultimately draw a benefit off of that,” Tovey said. “Instead of bemoaning what happened and what should have happened, you have to take control and manage it. We’ve done as well with that as any tribe in the nation, really.”
For years, that wasn’t the case with the Williams Northwest Pipeline. After the BIA negotiated the original right-of-way in 1955, the CTUIR received less than $1,000 per year for the next 40 years. The tribes later claimed the payments were “unconscionably low.”
Finally in 1995, the CTUIR negotiated terms for the next 20 years of the Northwest Pipeline right-of-way.
The new agreement brought in more than $2.6 million, with annual contributions of $2,000 to the Tribal Scholarship Fund and a total of $128,961 paid to landowners for loss of agricultural production.
“It was at that point we said, ‘OK, we’re going to change how these tribal rights-of-way are going to work,’” Hester said.
A chunk of that payment has also gone to the tribal fire, police and ambulance departments. Pipeline payments have helped to expand staff, buy new equipment and send officers to regional hazardous materials training courses, said Ray Denny, CTUIR public safety director.
“Our budgets are (now) millions of dollars per year,” Denny said.
However, any new projects remain closely scrutinized by the tribes. The CTUIR was a vocal opponent of the failed Morrow Pacific Project, which aimed to ship 8 million tons of coal annually down the Columbia River where tribal members have treaty fishing rights. Idaho Power was also forced to go around the reservation to site its Boardman to Hemingway transmission line.
“We are much better advocating that some rights-of-way and utilities don’t fit to protect our natural resources and treaty rights,” Sams said.
In that spirit, the CTUIR has stood in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. Tribal chairman Gary Burke wrote in an Aug. 30 letter that the project is a threat to resources and an insult to tribal sovereignty.
“Action that has the potential to cause harm to your land or water resources should have been considered in siting the path of the pipeline,” Burke wrote. “We feel if your sovereign rights are being negatively impacted, it has similar impact on all tribes.”