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Update: Can a Mega-Load Make a U-Turn?

Idaho Transportation Department grants permit but a mega-decision awaits the U.S. Forest Service

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UPDATE: AUG. 5, 2013

If the Nez Perce Tribe had its way, the U.S. government would block the latest mega-load from rolling across U.S. Highway 12 in north central Idaho.

The Idaho Transportation Department has issued a permit to the Omega Morgan company to haul the giant rig across Idaho toward the Montana border before heading north to the Tar Sands Oil Project in Alberta, Canada. The U.S. Forest Service has already expressed its concerns over the load—the first of 10 proposed from Omega Morgan. Earlier this year, a U.S. district judge told the USFS that it had the responsibility to regularly oversee such mega-loads through the Wild Scenic Corridor, which includes a large stretch of U.S. 12.

But USFS Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell has indicated his agency would not likely attempt to stop the shipments if Omega Morgan doesn't have its approval.

The evening of Aug. 4, the Nez Perce Tribe contacted the USFS urging the agency to use "all legal avenues" to stop the mega-loads.

This morning's Lewiston Tribune reports that Nez Perce Tribal Executive Chairman Silas Whitman says he was "shocked at the audacity" of Omega Morgan and its plans to move the massive rig beginning later tonight.

"The Forest Service must not tolerate Omega Morgan's open defiance of its authority and instead should aggressively assert, in court if necessary, the agency's decision so that the Nez Perce Tribe's unique Treaty-based interests and U.S. public's interest in the national forest and Wild and Scenic River Corridor are fully protected," said Whitman.

Whitman also warned Omega Morgan about possible consequences.

"If Omega Morgan proceeds with defying the Forest Service, the Nez Perce Tribe will not interfere with its members' constitutional rights to lawfully assemble in opposition to the immediate threat of the transport of these... mega-loads," wrote Whitman.

The Nez Perce Tribe's executive committee passed an emergency resolution Aug. 4 formally opposing the shipments.

UPDATE: Aug. 3, 2013

As far as the Idaho Transportation Department is concerned, the latest round of mega-loads, beginning with a 255-foot-long rocketship-sized load, can go ahead and crawl across U.S. Highway 12 in North-Central Idaho.

ITD officially granted a permit to Omega Morgan, the contracted mover, to haul the mega-load across Idaho, into Montana and up to the Tar Sands Oil Project in Alberta, Canada.

"The shipper has met Idaho's criteria to be issued an over-sized permit," said ITD Chief Deputy Scott Stokes. "We have issued that permit so that it now can be reviewed by the two federal agencies."

Those two agencies are the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Highway Administration, which were told by a U.S. district judge that they should be regularly reviewing permits for loads that want to travel across a large stretch of U.S. 12, since it winds through a Wild and Scenic Corridor.

Omega Morgan has formally notified the USFS that it intends to move the mega-load on the evening of Monday, Aug. 5; but, as of this morning, the USFS hadn't changed its displeasure over the size of the load and, in particular, the fact that it would regularly block two lanes of traffic on U.S. 12 and take more than 12 hours to reach the Montana border.

"ITD and the Forest Service have different interests," Heather Berg, USFS Wild and Scenic River administrator told Boise Weekly. "I think it would be best to describe our conversations as cordial and professional."

But USFS Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell has said his agency would not likely attempt to stop the shipments if Omega Morgan doesn't have its approval.

"We don't have the authority to stop the mega-loads," Brazell told the Lewiston Tribune. "You read the court ruling and it says we have authority to review the state permits. We have reviewed them and made our interim criteria."

UPDATE: Aug. 2, 2013

In a short statement, sent out Friday afternoon, August 2, the Idaho Transportation Department said it had issued a permit for the transport of one of the mega-loads, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Omega Morgan will be hauling the giant right, believed to be one of ten proposed mega-loads, across U.S. 12.

The same statement from ITD said it had "advised the shipper that the U.S. Forest Service and Federal Highway Administration also have jurisdiction to review the permit."

"The shipper has met Idaho's criteria to be issued an over-sized permit," said ITD Chief Deputy Scott Stokes. "We have issued that permit so that it now can be reviewed by the two federal agencies."

In fact, the permit would need to be additionally reviewed by the Nez Perce Tribe. Rick Brazell, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Supervisor has already said that he would consult with the tribe before the USFS would weigh in on the matter.

Meanwhile, the first mega-load is hooked up to a pull truck and push truck at the Port of Wilma , Washington, across the Columbia River from Clarkston, Washington and just a few miles upstream from Lewiston.

The ITD said its permit would be effective Monday, August 5th at 10 p.m.,

ORIGINAL STORY: July 31, 2013

The Idaho Transportation Department may want to consider building a new off-ramp on the stretch of U.S. 12 that winds alongside the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers in North-Central Idaho: "Next Exit, U.S. District Court."

ITD has visited several courtrooms since 2010, when Boise Weekly readers began reading of proposed shipments of T-Rex-sized equipment (BW, News, "Taking the Scenic Route," July 7, 2010) across one of region's most scenic thoroughfares--destined for the controversial Tar Sands Oil Project in Alberta, Canada. ExxonMobil had initial plans to pull massive rigs of equipment across U.S. 12, from the Port of Lewiston to the Montana border, before heading north to Canada. But debate, and a number of legal challenges, stretched out over two years--before ExxonMobil retreated from its plans, opting instead to break the mega-loads into smaller shipments and hauling them up Idaho's Highway 95 (BW, News, "Beating the ExxonMobil Mega-Loads," Nov. 16, 2011).

But (and stop us if you've heard this one before), the mega-load debate is again picking up speed as yet another transport company, this time Oregon-based Omega Morgan, asked ITD to pull as many as nine shipments, each at least 255-feet long, from Lewiston to Montana via U.S. 12, before heading north for a Tar Sands customer that Omega won't disclose. Each rig, resembling a Saturn rocket from the Apollo space age, is a water purification vessel weighing approximately 320 tons.

Omega has floated two of the nine mega-loads, via barge, to the Port of Wilma, Wash., four miles downstream of Lewiston, and has already loaded the shipments aboard massive tractor rigs.

"Omega has spent a lot of money moving those loads toward Lewiston in what I would view as a dead-end location for them," Kevin Lewis of Idaho Rivers United told Boise Weekly.

But Lewis reminds Omega that a federal judge ruled in February that the U.S. Forest Service has authority over a large stretch of Idaho's U.S. 12 (BW, News, "The Mega-Myth About Mega-Loads," Feb. 6, 2013) and should exercise that authority to protect the Wild and Scenic Corridor, winding through the Nez Perce and Clearwater forests between Kooskia and the Idaho-Montana border.

"And through that ruling, the Forest Service really has three criteria that we're looking at when someone requests an oversized shipment through the region," Heather Berg, Wild and Scenic River administrator for the Nez Perce and Clearwater forests, told BW. "No. 1: Would the shipment block both lanes of traffic and create traffic delays? No. 2: Would the shipment require more than 12 hours to travel through the national forest? And No. 3: Would the shipment require physical modification of the highway?"

Omega's shipments initially violated all three criteria, according to Berg. Omega has since modified its proposal, but Berg said the request still violated the first two criteria.

When BW asked Berg to describe current negotiations with the Forest Service, Omega and the Idaho Transportation Department, which would grant a permit to travel on U.S. 12, she took a long breath and laughed nervously before answering.

"It's a challenging situation," she said. "And ITD and the Forest Service have different interests. I think it would be best to describe our conversations as cordial and professional."

ITD is more tight-lipped, only confirming for BW that Omega Morgan had submitted a plan to the state of Idaho and, according to ITD Public Involvement Coordinator Adam Rush, "At this time, a permit has not been issued."

Meanwhile, Idaho Rivers United is more than anxious to challenge Omega's plan if and when anyone--including the state of Idaho or the U.S. government--gives Omega a green light to move the mega-loads across U.S. 12.

"This is, pure and simple, a brinkmanship move on the part of Omega Morgan," said Lewis. "I can just hear Omega now, crying that they spent all this money moving their loads to Lewiston; and, you know, that's just what they're going to say. Well, they had their eyes wide open on this one. And if they made the choice to come to Lewiston, it was at their own peril. And they deserve zero sympathy for that."

Meanwhile, ITD hastily scheduled an executive session of its board of directors for July 29. The agenda said "legal issues" would be discussed behind closed doors.

"It should be an interesting week," Lewis told BW.

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