BOISE - Though 33 megaloads of oil equipment in Lewiston are being cut down so they can travel on other routes - including Highway 95 through Moscow and Coeur d’Alene - Idaho Transportation Department officials said at a hearing Monday that it wouldn’t be “practical” to require such a move rather than allowing the giant loads to travel across scenic, winding U.S. Highway 12.
Reymundo Rodriguez, the ITD’s motor carrier services manager, said, “We’ve been told it’s 2,000 to 4,000 man-hours and it costs $500,000 a module.” He said, “It doesn’t seem to me practical for them to reduce it.”
The giant loads are so wide that they’ll block both lanes of the two-lane highway - either Highway 95 or Highway 12. The cut-down versions aren’t as tall; the full-sized ones are as tall as a three-story building and up to 250 feet long.
A contested-case hearing that kicked off Monday and is scheduled last at least through the week will decide whether Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil will be allowed to send more than 200 megaloads of oil equipment across the scenic highway en route to the Alberta oil sands project in Canada.
The Korean-made equipment is being brought to the Port of Lewiston by barge up the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Opponents, including residents and business owners along the route, say the project will turn the designated scenic byway, dotted with campgrounds and historic sites, into an industrial “high and wide corridor” and ruin its thriving tourism draw.
Ruth May, owner and operator of the Reflections Inn bed-and-breakfast on Highway 12, 11 miles east of Kooskia, said when two earlier megaloads came through the route bound for a ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings, they blocked traffic in front of her inn for 45 minutes to an hour.
“We have no way in or out except Highway 12,” she told the hearing examiner, retired Idaho District Judge Duff McKee.
Peter Grubb, co-owner and operator of the Riverdance Lodge and ROW Adventures, a whitewater rafting and fishing outfitter, said 1,200 to 2,000 people a year go on his company’s outfitted river trips, and the lodge he opened in the river corridor in 2005 was “the largest tourism investment in Idaho County in at least 20 years.” He said, “This was certainly the biggest financial gamble, risk that my wife and I ever took.”
Grubb said people come to his lodge because “it’s a beautiful place, primarily.”
But ITD, in its legal brief submitted for the hearing, argued that it can’t “restrict commercial travel to protect the scenic appeal of the area, the current business environment in the area, and to insure uninterrupted sleep of individuals choosing to live in close proximity to the highway,” saying, “These types of policy considerations and additional restrictions on commercial travel are not within the bounds of discretion that can be exercised by the department.” Only the Legislature could decide to do that, the department argued.
This year’s Idaho Legislature approved a new law allowing judges to require anyone suing to block a transportation project on Idaho highways to put up a huge cash bond, a move lawmakers said was aimed at halting lawsuits over megaloads.
North-central Idaho residents are divided over the issue, with boosters of the Port of Lewiston backing the shipments as a job-builder for the port.
A similar contested case hearing earlier resulted in permits being issued for two ConocoPhillips megaloads that traveled from the port over Highway 12 to Billings, though at that hearing, any mention of the larger, 200-load ExxonMobil project was forbidden.
On Monday, McKee allowed testimony about an additional project in the works from Harvest Energy, a Korean firm, to send another 60 megaloads over the route next year.
“They know these are lined up,” Laird Lucas, attorney for the megaloads opponents, told McKee, saying, “Judge, this kind of goes to the core of our case. If ITD isn’t going to evaluate what these massive shipments are going to mean for Highway12 as a wild and scenic highway, we’ve got a real problem, because it is a special place that deserves at least to have honest assessment of what is going to happen up there.”
Imperial, in its legal brief submitted for the hearing, argued that the same legal standards used to approve the more limited ConocoPhillips shipments should apply to the larger Imperial/Exxon project. “It would be inherently unfair … to apply a different legal standard to Imperial in this proceeding,” the company argued.
Cynthia Bergman White, ExxonMobil spokeswoman, said in a statement, “We look forward to participating in the hearing process and addressing any concerns. We will outline the years of careful planning and steps we have taken to ensure that this equipment can be transported safely and with minimal disruption to the public.”
ITD is currently monitoring a test run, which left Lewiston earlier this month but immediately ran into problems, hitting a power line and knocking out power to 1,300 customers in Pierce and Weippe, Idaho. The test run also has prompted extensive tree-trimming along the highway that was decried Monday by residents as unsightly and inappropriate for a scenic byway.
May said the wild and scenic river corridor and scenic byway designation - which she said prevents her from so much as cutting a tree or painting a building a different color without getting a permit - are key to the success of her bed-and-breakfast inn.