August 24, 2010 in Idaho

Judge revokes permit for Highway 12 wide loads

From staff and wire reports

From staff and wire reports

LEWISTON, Idaho — A judge on Tuesday revoked special permits allowing a company to truck four oversized loads of oil refinery equipment through a federally protected river corridor, saying the state failed to address public concerns and violated its own regulations in approving the permits.

Second District Judge John Bradbury ordered the Idaho Transportation Department to review the request from ConocoPhillips again and to take action to ensure the safety and convenience of the public.

Even with new permits, the move likely means the giant shipments couldn’t start before October, though the equipment has been sitting at the Port of Lewiston since May. Idaho’s permits would have allowed the shipments to start only if Montana also issued permits to move the oversize loads beyond the Montana line at Lolo Pass; it hasn’t yet done so. Also, the company had been hoping to move its big loads past the Arrow Bridge on U.S. Highway 12 during a brief window between completion of the paving of one lane of the bridge deck, and the start of paving of the other, since the loads will take up both lanes.

That window closed Monday, but ConocoPhillips was paying the paving contractor to “stand down pending the court ruling,” ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said. Once paving begins, both lanes of the bridge won’t be available again until October.

ITD had no immediate comment on the judge’s ruling, which came late Tuesday; it’ll review it this morning.

Last week, Bradbury put a temporary halt to the oil company’s plans to ship the massive coke drums along the 175-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho.

In his ruling Tuesday, he criticized the transportation department’s review of the permit application. “When the Department has acted, it has done well. Evidence of its engineering expertise is replete,” the judge wrote. “When it has not acted, its lack of interest is equally apparent.” The state, he wrote, did not “address the ‘inevitable’ accident or breakdown that could shut down Highway 12 for days or weeks.”

He also criticized the permits for allowing the big trucks to move aside only every 15 minutes to allow traffic to pass, instead of every 10 minutes as required by law.

The judge’s decision came after the state, ConocoPhillips and Highway 12 residents fully argued the case on Monday; it’s a final ruling revoking the permits, with no need to issue an injunction stopping the loads as had originally been requested.

Critics of the plan say the trucks and massive loads could damage a pristine river environment, harm tourism in a region dependent on visitors and threaten public safety. The trucks would roll along a highway that parallels the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers and was once explored by Lewis and Clark.

Laird Lucas, an attorney for Boise-based Advocates for the West, which represented the residents for free, said the judge was correct to question the impact the shipments would have on public convenience.

“We’re really pleased that Judge Bradbury is holding the Idaho Department of Transportation accountable under its own regulations,” Lucas said. “This is going to be a serious obstacle to shipping these megaloads up the highway.”

Lucas said there aren’t enough turnouts along the narrow, two-lane highway to allow traffic to pass the giant loads every 10 minutes.

Three river canyon residents and business owners sued last week to block the shipments. During a hearing Monday, plaintiff attorney Natalie Havlina told the judge that agency officials narrowly focused their review on potential damage to roads and bridges but failed to adequately consider public safety and convenience, as required by state code.

The agency “has abandoned its responsibility to protect the public’s health,” Havlina, an attorney for Advocates for the West, told the judge in a courtroom packed with opponents of the shipments.

The ConocoPhillips shipments are just the first oversized loads planned for the corridor. Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil is proposing to haul more than 200 oversized loads of heavy oil machinery from the port in Lewiston along Highway 12 into Montana, then north to its Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta, starting in November.

The Exxon loads would weigh more than 300 tons, stretch up to 227 feet long, and reach up to 27 feet high. Half would be up to 29 feet in width — wide enough to take up both lanes of the highway. Trucks would move only at night and pull over in newly designed turnouts during the day; Imperial/ExxonMobil already has spent $440,000 on improving turnouts along the route..

State officials say the loads proposed by the oil companies will be offset by the trailers’ bigger tires and extra axles, creating no more stress on the road than logging trucks or other commercial haulers.

Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.

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