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Idaho judge blocks huge truck shipments

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter presides over a meeting of the state Land Board on Tuesday. During a break in the meeting, he called proposed oversized shipments on U.S. Highway 12
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter presides over a meeting of the state Land Board on Tuesday. During a break in the meeting, he called proposed oversized shipments on U.S. Highway 12 "good for Lewiston, and therefore good for the state." (Betsy Russell)

BOISE – An Idaho judge today temporarily blocked ConocoPhillips from hauling four giant loads of oil refinery equipment over U.S. Highway 12 from the Port of Lewiston to Montana.

Judge John Bradbury of Idaho’s 2nd District issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Idaho Transportation Department from issuing permits for the loads, which are so wide they would take up both lanes of the two-lane highway. A motion for a preliminary injunction will be heard on Friday at 9 a.m. in Grangeville.

The judge found that the plaintiffs, three residents of the scenic Clearwater/Lochsa river canyon along which the highway runs, had shown “that they may suffer great damage” if ConocoPhillips is allowed to move the loads, and that by issuing permits for the transportation of the equipment, the ITD “may be violating its own regulations.”

However, he also ordered the plaintiffs, who are represented pro-bono by Advocates for the West, to post a $3,000 bond to “cover potential costs to the Department in the event this order has been improvidently issued.”

Laird Lucas, attorney with Advocates for the West, said his organization posted the bond Tuesday afternoon. The lawsuit contends the giant truck shipments would unsafely block traffic and would impact tourism along the designated scenic byway.

“This is right — a judge is taking this seriously,” Lucas said of the restraining order. “We wish the Department of Transportation had taken it as seriously as the courts are.”

The Idaho Transportation Department issued a statement saying it would “fully comply,” and noting that no permits have been issued to ConocoPhillips. “The transportation department is continuing its analysis of the ConocoPhillips request. The hearing on Friday is part of that process,” the statement said.

A day earlier, ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said the department had planned to issue the ConocoPhillips permits Tuesday, but that plan changed when the lawsuit was filed. The company hoped to start the shipments this week.

Shortly before the judge blocked the shipments, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter was asked about the oversize shipments, which are the first of more than 200 proposed over the next 15 months by two companies.

“When we first started discussions, we wanted to protect ourselves,” Otter said; he’s now imposed a new requirement, announced Monday, for a $10 million bond from each of the two companies. “The question of a bond has always been there, or a deposit. How much was also going to be a good question.”

Otter wrote a letter to the Port of Lewiston pledging his support for the project in January 2009.

On Tuesday, he said, “We had satisfied ourselves to some degree. We had finally decided we were going to permit each load.” That way, he explained, the state could adjust requirements as needed, based on issues that arise with earlier truckloads, because a new permit would be issued for each load.

“I see it as potential economic development,” Otter said, “but I also see it as having done everything right as a demonstration that we can do those kinds of things, and that port being 400 miles inland is extremely valuable. … That of course, then, is good for Lewiston, and therefore good for the state.”

The Port of Lewiston, at 465 miles from the ocean, is the furthest inland port on the west coast of the United States.

The Idaho Transportation Board, at its regular meeting Thursday in Coeur d’Alene, is scheduled to consider raising fees for over-legal trucks, after a department review found that the current fees don’t fully cover the department’s administrative costs to issue the permits. Under the current fee structure, each of the giant loads proposed for Highway 12 would be subject to a $1,000 state fee; the proposed increase would raise that by as much as $35.

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