BOISE – Nez Perce tribal leaders urged a federal judge Monday to halt shipments of giant oil-field equipment across their reservation en route to Canada’s tar sands – even as more truckloads are poised to roll.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said he would rule by Friday before a second 225-foot-long, 640,000-pound water evaporator is hauled across U.S. 12, the winding highway across the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana.
At issue is whether the court can order the Forest Service to take action, including closing the road temporarily to further megaloads. Winmill said the issue may well land in the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Bill Heins, vice president and chief operating officer for GE Water and Process Technologies, said the company faces $3.8 million in contractual fines if the equipment doesn’t arrive in time.
“We’re eager to get this piece of evaporator equipment up to the job site,” Heins said after the court hearing.
The stretch of mountainous highway has become a contentious chokepoint for big oilfield equipment. Last month 20 protesters – including tribal officials – were arrested for blocking a shipment.
Tribal leaders don’t want the shipments hauled across their reservation. And environmental groups opposed to big oil companies don’t want the scenic stretch of road turned into an industrial haul route.
Corporations say Highway 12 is the cheapest, safest path to deliver the equipment. It is manufactured overseas, barged up the Columbia River to the Port of Wilma near Lewiston, then hauled across the mountains, through Montana and eventually into Alberta.
The Forest Service can regulate the megaloads across the federally designated wild and scenic route, but has not stopped shipments.
Silas Whitman, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, welcomed a quick decision.
“We need the word one way or another, what’s going to happen,” he said. Whitman was among those arrested in August.
The Forest Service has announced plans to study the corridor and consult with the Nez Perce Tribe. The agency also asked the Idaho Transportation Department to refrain from issuing more megaload permits in the meantime. But ITD issued permits for the August load anyway, and the Forest Service, while noting it hadn’t approved the load, took no action to stop it.