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Debate Over Mega-Loads Makes Its Way to Idaho's High Court

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Fall is the most idyllic time of year to travel U.S. Highway 12, possibly the prettiest stretch of Idaho. From end to end, the east-west highway connects the Pacific Ocean to downtown Detroit. But in the Gem State, you'll want to start in Lewiston, drive along the Clearwater River to Orofino, wind past the Lochsa River and travel through remote sections of the Clearwater National Forest. You'll cross some 40 Idaho bridges, and don't do too much leaf-peeping--you'll need to negotiate countless turns.

The morning of Sept. 29, a truck out of Billings, Mont., didn't do so well with one of those turns. The west-bound tanker slammed into a borrow pit, resulting in a minor rockslide. One of the rocks ruptured the tanker and more than 7,500 gallons of diesel began spilling. As BW was going to press, officials with the Idaho Transportation Department reported that none of the diesel had made its way to the Lochsa River, as most of the spill had been contained in bedrock immediately beneath the roadway.

The truck was registered to Keller Transport in Billings. The same company was cited for a 2005 accident on Hwy. 12 that saw 1,600 gallons of diesel spill into a roadside ditch. And the Missoulian newspaper reported that yet another truck owned by Keller was involved in an accident on Montana's Highway 35 in 2008 that resulted in a 6,000-gallon fuel spill.

The most recent accident was the topic du jour in the halls of the Idaho's Supreme Court Building in Boise on Oct. 1. But not a word of the wreck was mentioned inside the courtroom, at least not when the high court was in session.

The State Supreme Court gaveled in a special hearing to consider whether to clear the way for mega-loads of equipment to roll across Hwy. 12. The Idaho Transportation Department would have the court believe that the hearing pertained only to four loads owned by ConocoPhillips, sitting at the Port of Lewiston. Environmentalists and residents along Hwy. 12 say they know otherwise.

About halfway into the 60-minute hearing, Justice Joel Horton addressed the "elephant in the room."

"It appears that we're being asked to consider much more than these particular loads," Horton told the packed courtroom.

And it wasn't an exaggeration to stereotype the loads as "elephantine." Horton referred to the 200-plus loads (each as big as a T-rex) that Exxon/Mobil wants to ship across the same highway on the way up to the controversial Kearl Oil Sands region in Alberta, Canada. (BW, News, "Taking the Scenic Route," July 7, 2010.)

"We're really considering the future of the Exxon/Mobil loads up to the Kearl Oil Sands project, aren't we?" asked Horton.

"No, no, no," responded Lawrence Allen, attorney for ITD. "The department considers each load on a case-by-case basis."

Laird Lucas, of Advocates for the West, representing three Central Idahoans opposing the loads, vehemently disagreed.

"Of course this is related to the Exxon/Mobil loads," said Lucas. "ITD even said if one company gets in, it's going to impact everyone else."

Justice Jim Jones quizzed attorneys for ITD and ConocoPhillips on why the four massive coke drums were even sitting at the Lewiston port in the first place.

"If the ITD hadn't granted any permits yet, why were they there to begin with?" asked Jones.

Allen was contrite.

"It was a business decision by Conoco."

Conoco's attorney Erik Stidham was more sheepish. "My client is over a barrel, your honor."

"There's really nowhere else for them to go to, is there?" asked Jones.

"Not if ITD isn't allowed to grant a permit," resigned Stidham.

The hour-long arguments may have been moot. Justice Warren Jones returned several times to the same theme: The case may not have belonged in the courts in the first place.

"I'm not so sure if this is a formally contested case," said Jones. "You may not be subject to appeal or a right to review if there's no jurisdiction here."

"This was more of an informal proceeding," said Lucas. The plaintiffs' attorney was referring to a hasty hearing before Second District Justice John Bradbury to revoke ITD permits to allow the Conoco transport. Bradbury agreed to block the permits pending more review. That prompted ITD and Conoco to request an expedited hearing before the high court, citing economic hardship.

When might the parties get a ruling? Clerk of the Courts Stephen Kenyon told Citydesk that Idaho's State Supreme Court has a median average of 60 days to hand down decisions. Rulings have come as short as two weeks and as long as nine months. Emotions aren't expected to subside within any of those time frames.

Meanwhile, some 359 nautical miles upriver from Lewiston, the first of the Exxon/Mobil shipments have just arrived at the Port of Vancouver. The first 15 shiploads are slowly making their way through eight locks of the 14-foot navigation channel.

Each module, manufactured in Korea and shipped across the Pacific, is 140-feet long by 24-feet wide and up to 26-feet high.

The timing of the shipments is critical. Come Dec. 13, all barge traffic will come to a halt when scheduled lock maintenance begins and continues until mid-May.

Budget crunchers at the Port of Lewiston are already forecasting a $100,000 revenue windfall for the coming fiscal year for docking and storage fees in connection to the Exxon/Mobil mega-loads. That may be conservative. Officials at the Port of Vancouver are predicting that moving the equipment through their gates will bring in roughly $1 million.

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