BOISE - Residents and business owners along scenic U.S. Highway 12 who object to giant mega-loads of oil equipment traveling the route and blocking both lanes have a right to be heard at formal hearings before Idaho grants permits for the loads, a hearing officer ruled Wednesday.
In a 20-page ruling, hearing officer Merlyn Clark found that the three opponents who sued to block the loads clearly have a “direct and substantial interest” in the matter. “To allow the loads to travel before a formal contested case hearing is conducted would contravene the right of the parties to intervene and be heard upon the issues,” Clark wrote in his ruling.
Idaho Transportation Department Director Brian Ness is reviewing the ruling, ITD said Wednesday, and “will decide the final action of the transportation department.” Department spokesman Adam Rush said Ness “can accept, reject, modify or hold the recommendation.”
“He’ll certainly take time to review it and look into it and consult with staff here and see how to proceed,” Rush said. While that happens, Rush said, the stay on the permits remains in effect.
ConocoPhillips said in a statement that the company was “disappointed” in the ruling. “We do not believe the recommendation adequately accounts for the careful planning by ConocoPhillips, Emmert International, the ITD, and other state and local agencies,” the company said. “We are well prepared to transport our refinery equipment from Lewiston to Billings safely, and in a way that protects roads and accommodates traffic flow.”
Clark, in his ruling, detailed how ITD reviewed the plans and determined the loads could travel safely. But he also found that the opponents had a right to be heard in the process.
Linwood Laughy and Borg Hendrickson, two U.S. Highway 12 residents who were among those who sued to block the mega-loads, said in a statement Wednesday, “We feel that it is good news that a neutral lawyer has said, yes, residents and business owners who live, work and recreate along U.S. Highway 12 do have a voice in government agency dealings that directly affect them. We look forward to moving ahead with the contested case process.”
They and river lodge owner Peter Grubb sued to block the four shipments, prompting a 2nd District judge to revoke permits for them in August, but the Idaho Supreme Court overturned that decision, saying ITD hadn’t yet issued a final order that was appealable in court, so the courts lacked jurisdiction to review it.
The route is a designated scenic byway dotted with campgrounds, hot springs, and historic sites; it roughly parallels the route explorers Lewis and Clark followed. The twisting road follows the protected Lochsa and Clearwater rivers.
Though ConocoPhillips plans just four mega-loads - consisting of two giant coke drums that have been cut in half, to replace two aging drums at its Billings, Mont. refinery - they are the first of more than 200 mega-loads proposed for the route. Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil plans to send 207 extra-large loads of equipment along the route from the Port of Lewiston, across Idaho on Highway 12 and up through Montana to Canada for its Alberta oil sands project. A Korean firm also has contacted ITD about sending dozens more giant loads along the same route.
ExxonMobil has made substantial improvements along the route at its own expense, including reconstructing turnouts and removing foliage, to prepare for its big loads, which are proposed to run for a year but don’t yet have permits.
The giant loads would travel at night, take four days each to traverse the 175 miles from Lewiston to the Montana line at Lolo Pass, and pull off at turnouts during the day.
Though ITD and Conoco argued that the opponents really are concerned about the Exxon project and other future projects, Clark ruled that holding contested-case hearings on the four Conoco mega-loads “will not unduly broaden the issues, because the issues are limited only to the four permits sought by applicants, and evidence that others may seek overlegal permits at some future date is not relevant and will not be considered in this contested case proceeding.”