A scenic Idaho river canyon dotted with campgrounds, hiking trails and historic sites is the target for hundreds of mammoth truck shipments of Korean-built equipment for the Alberta oil sands project in Canada, a prospect that’s raising an outcry from residents, recreationists and tourist businesses along the route.
But the project’s biggest booster is Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who welcomed it long before locals heard about it. Otter says it’ll be done right, but critics aren’t convinced, and are concerned about Otter’s handling of the issue.
“People are passionate about this - they are really, really upset,” said Linwood Laughy, a retired educator and author who’s lived in the Clearwater/Lochsa river canyon since 1965, and first came to Lewiston in 1948. “There’s a definite sense of betrayal, that these folks are working for the oil companies and not for the citizens.”
Laughy’s home is right on Highway 12, where the truck shipments are proposed to go. The route was designated as an Idaho scenic byway in 1989, and a national “all-American road” dubbed the “Northwest Passage Scenic Byway” in 2005. It follows roughly the route that explorers Lewis and Clark took as they sought a passage to the Pacific, and passes through the reservation of the Nez Perce Tribe, which is opposing the shipments.
“This is truly a special place down here,” said Laughy, who added, “Tourism is a pretty significant element of our economy in north-central Idaho - it’s the only growing industry.”
The truckloads are so huge that they’ll take up both lanes of the two-lane highway; running at night, they’ll pull over every 15 minutes to let other traffic pass, which otherwise will be blocked. The shipments would run for a year.
Among those who’ve come out against the 200-plus giant truckloads, which will take four days each to travel the 175-mile route from Lewiston to Lolo Pass on the Montana border, are conservation groups, local business owners, river rafters, fishermen, hiking enthusiasts and history buffs. Among those in favor: Boosters of the Port of Lewiston, which will receive the shipments by barge and then route them on by truck.
In January of 2009, Otter wrote a letter to the Port of Lewiston’s commissioners saying he was “honored” to “take this opportunity to encourage Imperial Oil and ExxonMobil to utilize the Port of Lewiston,” and wrote, “I pledge our support and cooperation to enhance the development of this important new business opportunity,” which he also dubbed an “exciting project.”
Laughy said he and his neighbors didn’t hear about the plans until April of this year - and the first they heard was that it was a “done deal.” However, neither Idaho nor Montana has yet issued permits for the oversized loads; in June, ITD held three public meetings about them in Lewiston, Moscow and Kooskia.
Keith Allred, the Democrat who’s challenging Otter in the November election, said, “This is typical of the pattern we’ve seen with Gov. Otter - he listens to a very narrow set of political supporters who have a vested interest in the question at hand, takes their word for it and marches out a policy proposal. And then we find out that the people that Otter didn’t consult with have very good objections, and it turns out to be problematic.”
Among concerns area residents are raising are how someone headed to the emergency room will get through when the big loads are taking up the whole road; what will happen if there’s an accident and a load goes into the river; and how the huge nighttime loads will impact tourism, with campgrounds and motels just yards from the highway.
Pius Rolheiser, spokesman for Alberta-based Imperial Oil, which is partly owned by ExxonMobil, said the company has planned carefully for all those issues. “Our goal is to carry out this project safely, efficiently and with a minimum of impact,” he said. “They’re no noisier, no louder than a standard semi-trailer transport, of which there are many on Highway 12.”
In fact, tourist brochures about the river canyon warn about logging trucks and other commercial vehicles, and the Idaho Transportation Department says it’s issued an average three to four permits for oversize vehicles a year on the route for the last 10 years, mostly for farm equipment, boats, wind turbine blades and the like. But ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said, “We never had a request for anywhere near this volume.”
The trucks could weigh up to 337 tons, and be up to 29 feet wide, 27 feet high and 227 feet long.
Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil plans to move 207 of the high and wide loads, starting in November. At the same time, ConocoPhillips has applied to move four loads just as big across the same route to Billings starting this month.
Petitions against both applications with more than 1,700 signatures have been delivered to Otter, and ITD has received hundreds of letters and emails about the plans, including a legal protest. Stratten said all the concerns are being analyzed and responses to them will be posted on the Internet in late August - but the ConocoPhillips loads are likely to be approved and start moving before then.
Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil already has spent $440,000 to improve nine turnouts along U.S. Highway 12, Stratten said; ITD inspected the work but didn’t participate or pay for it.
Rolheiser said, “We’re doing this work with no guarantee and no certainty.” But he said, “We have confidence in the process.”
When Otter held a “Capitol for a Day” session recently in Pierce, not far from the river canyon, he was quizzed about the plans and defended them. “If there’s anything in there that we haven’t vetted yet, I’m not aware of it, but if there is, we’ll vet that first,” Otter declared. He said multiple axles will distribute the loads, so the impact on the highway “probably won’t be any more than a 1-ton pickup.”
The state Transportation Department says the pressure on the huge trucks’ tires will be “less than a standard, non-permitted commercial vehicle,” such as a logging truck, and notes, “Multiple axles will distribute the load across two lanes of highway.”
Rolheiser said the largest loads will have 14 axles with eight tires per axle. “Yes, they are large, heavy loads, but trailers are designed to distribute that,” he said.
State Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said he’s hearing both sides of the debate in his district. “I think that the opportunity to receive and hear the concerns of the people has not been handled well. … They treated it just like any road project, but there’s really bigger questions and bigger issues that people have. Should it be a wild and scenic recreation corridor, or should it be a commercial traffic corridor, is it really both, and if so, how do we make sure that both needs and uses are protected?”
Residents say their biggest fear is that the project will turn the route into a permanent high-and-wide commercial trucking corridor, to the detriment of all other uses. Rolheiser said that’s not Imperial Oil’s plan: “We have no designs on use of this route beyond this project.”
The outcry’s been even greater in Montana, where the route the big loads will take to Canada rolls right through Missoula; there, the state Transportation Department has been deluged with thousands of objections.
Said Rolheiser, “If for whatever reason a permit wasn’t granted, then at that point we would have to assess that and make decisions accordingly. And that’s pretty much all I can tell you about that at this point.”