BOISE - Idaho’s transportation director refused Friday to allow hearings that could delay a new proposal to send megaloads of equipment across scenic U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho, including several wide enough to block both lanes of traffic on the narrow, twisting, two-lane route.
The move followed extended hearings that delayed for months the plans by Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil to send more than 200 giant loads of oil equipment over the route; ExxonMobil reacted by reducing the size of many of the loads so they can travel on a freeway route instead, and those freeway shipments are under way now.
Brian Ness, Idaho Transportation Department director, rejected a petition from Friends of the Clearwater, a conservation group based in Moscow, Idaho, to intervene and hold a contested-case hearing on a new proposal from Nickel Bros. and Weyerhaeuser Inc. to run nine large oversize loads across the route on their way to a Weyerhaeuser pulp mill in northern Alberta.
Ness ruled that all the issues the Friends of the Clearwater raised in their petition already were addressed in the contested-case hearings over the ExxonMobil loads, and in an earlier hearing over ConocoPhillips’ now-completed plans for four megaloads on the same route headed for its Billings, Mont. oil refinery, so there was no reason to hold further hearings.
“A third contested case hearing is not warranted. The facts and concerns raised in the petition have been fully considered in two separate hearings and resolved by hearing officers,” Ness said.
However, during the earlier hearings, when opponents raised concerns about the ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil loads setting a precedent for turning the popular scenic river corridor into a megaload-friendly industrial route, ITD stressed that it was considering only the proposal before it - and not any precedent. The latest decision suggests otherwise.
“The law does not require nor allow a party to re-litigate issues and claims that have already been ruled upon by the appropriate authority,” Ness said in an ITD press release.
Wayne Roznowsky, spokesman for Weyerhaeuser, which is sending the equipment to its Grande Prairie, Alberta pulp mill for an environmental upgrade, said, “We’re pleased with the decision. We obviously think it’s the right decision and are pleased to be able to proceed.”
He said the wood-products company was “somewhat surprised and I guess disappointed” when the petition was filed, “that what we thought is a pretty good project” could face delays. The new evaporator equipment headed for the northern Alberta pulp mill is the third phase of an upgrade to the 37-year-old mill that will improve its efficiency, cut its emissions and water use, and allow it to produce green energy from biomass that will go to the Canadian power grid, enough to power 16,000 homes.
The mill processes the dense wood pulp from slow-growing northern Alberta forests, known for its strength, for tissue and paper towels, including Bounty brand paper towels.
“This equipment is not related to the oil sands,” Roznowsky said.
Exxon’s loads are of Korean-made oil field equipment for use in the Alberta oil sands project.
Gary MacFarlane of Friends of the Clearwater in Moscow, Idaho, said his group’s “main concern is we think Highway 12 is inappropriate for megaloads, be they headed for the tar sands in Alberta or be they a giant machine to make bubble gum. It doesn’t matter. Because this is not an appropriate place.”
He said, “We don’t think … an appropriate place for an industrial corridor is up the Middle Fork of the Clearwater and the Lochsa rivers in a wild and scenic rivers corridor on a narrow and winding road. … It doesn’t matter what they’re hauling.”
Natalie Havlina, attorney for the Friends of the Clearwater, said the group could ask Ness to reconsider his decision, and/or take the case to court. “My client has not decided yet what if any action it intends to take,” she said.
ITD spokesman Adam Rush said the group has 14 days to seek reconsideration.
Havlina called Ness’ decision “disturbing,” particularly after ITD’s assurances on the ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil cases that it wasn’t considering any precedent for future loads. “Now they’ve suddenly changed course and decided that they did set a precedent,” she said.
Nickel Bros. is the hauler for the Weyerhaeuser project; it includes a total of 12 loads, two of which are just one lane wide, about 14 feet, and already have traveled across Highway 12. Friends of the Clearwater didn’t protest those two. The remaining loads vary in width and height from 14.2 feet to 23.1 feet; six are more than 18 feet high and wide.
“The fact that they think they now can proceed to approve megaloads without taking that careful look and subjecting each traffic control plan to careful scrutiny is concerning,” Havlina said. “I think it’s important that both ITD scrutinize the plan and that the public have the opportunity to challenge the plan if they have concerns about it.”