Opponents of so-called mega-loads—oversized equipment that shippers want to move through the Clearwater National Forest en route to the Alberta, Canada oil sands—scored a victory Friday, Sept. 13, when a federal judge temporarily blocked additional shipments until a corridor review and tribal consultation have been completed.
The injunction, granted by federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill, was issued as part of a lawsuit brought by Idaho Rivers United and the Nez Perce Tribe, which objected to the mega-loads passing not only through the Clearwater-Lochsa Wild and Scenic River corridor (the nation's first such designated area), but across tribal land.
“This is a win for all who cherish the esthetic, spiritual and recreational values of the Lochsa and Clearwater Rivers,” IRU Conservation Director Kevin Lewis stated in a news release announcing the decision.
The permit for one such mega-load was approved by the Idaho Transportation Department earlier this summer, and, while the Forest Service objected, it did nothing to stop the shipment. That shipment passed through Idaho, into Montana and on to Canada in August, while another load was scheduled to begin its journey from the Port of Wilma, Wash., on the Columbia River, across Idaho Wednesday, Sept. 18.
USFS attorneys previously argued that while the agency had the authority to review the shipments, it did not have the power to stop them. When that position was rejected by the court in an earlier case, the Forest Service changed its tune, maintaining that it simply chose not to exercise its ability to halt the loads. Judge Winmill ruled that the Forest Service must enforce all relevant statutes, including the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, or be in violation of federal law.
General Electric, whose Water and Process Technologies division sent a load of the evaporator equipment over Highway 12 last month, joined the case Aug. 26, arguing that delays of the shipments to Alberta would cost millions of dollars in fines and ultimately make the oil sands project less environmentally friendly, according to the Spokesman-Review.
The 225-foot-long, 322-ton metal cylinders are used to purify water at the oil fields, but are so large that they take up two highway lanes and move at a snail's pace, effectively closing whole sections of roadway and cutting off access to recreational, tribal cultural and historic sites—not to mention ruining the views and potentially harming the federally protected Lochsa and Clearwater rivers.
Protests blocking the August mega-load shipment led to arrests at the roadway, with charges filed against 28 demonstrators—including eight members of Nez Perce Tribe executive committee.
Winmill's decision to temporarily suspend the shipments was based on the likelihood that Idaho Rivers United and the Tribe would win the case "on its merits," according to a statement from IRU.
“The plaintiffs are not seeking damages; they are seeking to preserve their Treaty rights along with cultural and intrinsic values that have no price tag,” Winmill wrote in the 17-page decision.
“This wild river corridor is a national treasure, and its industrialization shouldn’t be allowed,” Said Lewis. “There are 80-odd tar sands projects either under way or under review in northern Alberta right now, and they’re all going to need oil processing equipment. These companies, some of the largest in the world, can afford to build their equipment in Canada or find other routes to ship it there.”