March 23, 2011 in City

Megaload law would put heavy load on citizens

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Hearing set

The Idaho Department of Transportation has scheduled a “contested case” hearing on the planned ExxonMobil oversize shipments for April 25 in Boise. The hearing, before retired judge Duff McKee, will allow opponents of the megaloads to present evidence and testimony. A time and location have not been set.

Dick Harwood says he’s very concerned about commerce in Idaho.

Linwood Laughy says he’s very concerned about the same thing.

But Harwood and his fellow Republicans in the Idaho House of Representatives ain’t all that concerned, really, about Laughy, who owns a business along U.S. Highway 12 with his wife. Or about the other businesses and residents along that route who object to what have become known as the megaloads.

The businesses these pro-business lawmakers are fighting for are a little bigger than these little Idaho concerns. Think ExxonMobil. ConocoPhillips. Anyone with a few billion dollars who wants to clog up Highway 12, the gorgeous scenic route that follows the same path Lewis and Clark took back in the days before frivolous lawsuits tied up everyone’s commerce.

Harwood has proposed a new law that would require citizens to put up a bond equal to 5 percent of a load in order to file a lawsuit opposing a transportation project – as Laughy and others along the route did. Though their suit ultimately was not successful – based on jurisdictional questions – there’s now another suit filed by an environmental group.

All of which Harwood deems, on its face, frivolous. Frivolous because it cost the state money. Frivolous because it caused a corporation distress. Frivolous because the people involved might have an environmental bone in their body.

What Harwood wants to do is redefine “frivolous lawsuit” to mean “pretty much any lawsuit.” A majority of the House agreed, passing the bill Monday.

“My reason for bringing it is we can’t let groups tie up commerce in this state,” Harwood said Monday. “It costs the state of Idaho a lot of money to fight these lawsuits.”

Well, it cost the Catholic Church a lot of money to fight lawsuits, too. That doesn’t mean you start charging people to sue.

I give Harwood some credit for calling me up and debating this. He’s a timber-country guy, and his monochromatic view of lawsuits come from his long history of seeing timber sale after timber sale tied up by lawsuits, he said.

Yet he seems unwilling to grant the possibility that a person with an environmental opinion might be a citizen. With rights.

Why should someone who can afford a 5 percent bond have a right to sue, while someone who can’t doesn’t? What does that 5 percent represent, exactly, that makes a plaintiff more legally valid than one who doesn’t?

“I can understand where you’re going with that,” Harwood said. “But we’ve been doing that for a number of years.”

Idaho law already allows the requirement of a bond for people to sue over timber sales and nuclear shipments, he said. The bonds can be used to offset the state’s costs if the case is thrown out.

Why not just allow a judge to determine what’s frivolous and what’s not? Harwood said you can’t trust the judges, because some of them have ruled in ways he disagrees with. Like Judge John Bradley, who initially ruled in favor of Laughy and his fellow plaintiffs.

“Judge Bradley – he’s an environmental judge,” Harwood said. “He’s very supportive of breaching the dams. … (Environmental groups) get people who think like they think and do what they want them to do.”

But back to Linwood Laughy. Laughy and his wife, Borg Hendrickson, have lived on Highway 12 for years, running a small publishing business and leading excursions in the area for “history tourists.” They are Idaho citizens and business owners. They’re continuing to fight, convinced that these monstrous loads will damage the roads, hurt the scenic and historic nature of the river corridor, block response time for emergency vehicles, and generally put the interests of huge multinational corporations ahead of those of the citizenry.

Wonder where they got that idea.

“Both Borg and I are pushing 70,” Laughy said. “I’ve never before been in a protest march or been involved in a lawsuit. I’ve yet to get my first traffic ticket. We’re a grandma and a grandpa, but we’re not going down without a fight.”

It’s important to remember they lost their lawsuit, though Laughy doesn’t like to look at it that way, because a larger legal battle is continuing – filed, yes, by an environmental group – and because he’s done a lot to bring attention to the issue.

Meanwhile, the loads have started moving. The initial delays have been a mere four times what they were supposed to be. And more and more oil companies are casting long, lascivious looks at the scenic Highway 12 as the cheapest route to oil sands.

Laughy and other opponents say they’re not giving up, and I wish them well. If you’ve driven along that route, it’s hard to imagine that you’d want to see it become the Oil Sands Thru-Way. But if all you’re worried about is commerce, then think about this: Tourism brought more than $166 million into north-central Idaho in 2005, the state’s last report on travel spending.

“(Harwood) said something like, ‘Anytime an individual can stop our commerce from flowing, it’s not a good thing,’ ” Laughy said. “I agree with you, Mr. Harwood, completely. These megaloads are stopping our commerce.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


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