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Idaho residents sue to halt big oil trucks

Several workmen prepare for transport to a Conoco-Phillips refinery in Billings, Mt, from the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, on Aug. 10, 2010. Each oversized load will contain half a drum that will be assembled on site. (AP Photo/Lewiston Tribune / Barry Kough)
Several workmen prepare for transport to a Conoco-Phillips refinery in Billings, Mt, from the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, on Aug. 10, 2010. Each oversized load will contain half a drum that will be assembled on site. (AP Photo/Lewiston Tribune / Barry Kough)

BOISE - Residents opposed to giant truck shipments of oil equipment through Idaho’s scenic Clearwater/Lochsa river canyon filed suit Monday to block the shipments, just a day before Idaho planned to issue permits for the first four loads.

Meanwhile, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter announced that he’ll impose a new requirement for a $10 million bond from each of the two oil companies that wants to move the giant equipment, and both agreed to put up the bonds. Without the new bonding requirement, the two would have paid state fees of just $1,000 per load for the oversize loads.

“The governor felt we needed to go the extra mile to ensure that in the unlikely event that something happened, there is a process,” said Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian. “I think the action that we’ve taken will mitigate the risk.”

The Idaho Transportation Department was poised to issue oversize permits to ConocoPhillips for four mammoth shipments along the route on Tuesday, but now will hold off due to the lawsuit. “It was the intent of the department to issue four permits to ConocoPhillips tomorrow,” ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said in an email late Monday. “The department will defer the issuance to await the judge’s ruling.”

Laird Lucas, attorney for Advocates for the West, which is representing three river canyon residents pro-bono in the case, said the opponents scrambled to file the lawsuit before the shipments started. It was filed Monday in 2nd District Court in Grangeville, and seeks an immediate order blocking the shipments plus a declaration that they’re illegal. Two violations of the Idaho Administrative Procedures Act are alleged: Allowing traffic delays of more than 10 minutes for the loads, and failing to determine that they’re both necessary and feasible and to place a “primary concern” on public convenience and safety,

“If we didn’t get into court now, the shipments would be gone,” Lucas said Monday. “Big oil, the oil industry, Exxon and now Conoco, has spent the last couple years very quietly making the preparations.”

The stretch of highway is the designated “Northwest Passage Scenic Byway,” and roughly traces the route taken by explorers Lewis and Clark. It’s dotted with campgrounds, hiking trails, hot springs and historic sites, and is popular with fishermen, whitewater rafters and more. It’s also the only commercial trucking route east from the Port of Lewiston to Montana.

Lucas was surprised to hear of Otter’s new bonding requirement, which was announced just hours after the lawsuit was filed.

“A $10 million bond is certainly a lot better than a thousand,” he said. “The problem is it’s only looking at one part of the issue. Yes, if this equipment falls into the Lochsa River or collapses a bridge, those are huge problems and the companies should pay for them. But we’re talking about something that’s different. We’re talking about the daily lives of businesses and people who live along Highway 12, and maybe they commute into Lewiston, or maybe they cater to the tourist industry. But Highway 12 is a lifeblood, it’s how you get to the hospital. We’re talking about over 200 shipments of this massive equipment that will completely block the road.”

The truckloads are so huge that they’ll take up both lanes of the two-lane highway; running at night, they’d pull over every 15 minutes to let other traffic pass, which otherwise will be blocked. ConocoPhillips plans four loads starting this week; Alberta-based Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil plans 207 shipments starting in November and running for a year.

Peter Grubb, who operates the River Dance Lodge in the river canyon and ROW Adventures, an adventure travel and rafting company, said in the lawsuit that his business already has been harmed by construction in the river corridor - some of it done by ExxonMobil to enlarge turnouts for the truck shipments.

“The construction activities have included traffic delays, as well as additional traffic and loud noises at night, that guests have complained about,” he said. “The complaints of my guests and the decline in business at my lodge indicate to me that the reputation of the Lochsa River corridor as a tourist and recreation destination has already suffered. I am deeply concerned that allowing the massive equipment shipments proposed by ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil will destroy that reputation irreparably.”

The other two named plaintiffs are Highway 12 residents Linwood Laughy and Karen “Borg” Hendrickson. Hendrickson noted in the lawsuit that three years ago, she went into anaphylactic shock at her home; her husband, Laughy, rushed her to the Clearwater Valley emergency room. “I nearly died,” she said in the lawsuit. “It is my understanding that a delay of fifteen minutes or more could have made a deadly difference.”