Once again, Idaho is choking on megaloads, and its fractious relationship with the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests.
Hauler Omega Morgan has two giant water purification vessels staged at the Port of Wilma in Clarkston, awaiting Idaho permits for the trip up the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers to Lolo Pass and, ultimately, the tar sands region of northern Alberta. Montana has already approved an application for the two units, as it did for other megaloads two years ago.
The earlier shipments were strongly opposed by environmental groups and residents along the river route whose travel along U.S. Highway 12 was periodically blocked by refinery equipment more than 200 feet long, 20 feet wide and weighing more than 600,000 pounds. Although a few loads went through, the resistance ultimately forced that manufacturer to cut most down enough that they could travel on Interstate 90.
The vessels Omega Morgan has ready are 255 feet long and 21 feet wide. They would be moved only at night. The climb to the pass would take four nights.
If the Forest Service consents. The agency tried to finesse its responsibilities for oversight two years ago, but in February a U.S. District Court judge told officials that, as stewards of the Wild and Scenic River Corridor, they could not sit by while Idaho acted.
They took the ruling to heart.
Now, the federal agency and Idaho Transportation Department officials are insisting the other has the authority to issue a permit, but no common criteria for an application. And however Omega Morgan might be trying to hurry the process along, Nez Perce-Clearwater supervisor Rick Brazell has informed Idaho officials he will not proceed until he consults with the Nez Perce Tribe. The first talks are scheduled for Aug. 20.
Anyone can see where this is going: the intersection of Process Boulevard and Gridlock Lane.
This is a conversation – if there is one – that should have started more than two years ago, when the oil companies, manufacturers and shippers began off-loading equipment at Lewiston. At the time, Idaho officials were so sure of their authority vis-à-vis permitting, they dismissed the Wild and Scenic River designation as “irrelevant.”
“Nowhere in the rules is the department allowed, much less required, to take into consideration these designations.”
The only consideration seemed to be commerce at the Port of Lewiston, and its potential as an assembly point for all manner of jumbo goods headed inland. All other U.S. 12 users would just have to pull over.
Obviously, the port remains an attractive jumping-off point, or Omega Morgan would not have the water purifiers poised for a go-ahead. That should be an impetus for discussions that define what a megaload is, when it can be moved without inconveniencing every other highway user, and how it can be done without making a mockery of “wild and scenic.”
It’s not rocket science, just almost as big.