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Eye On Boise

Highway 12 megaloads dispute heads to Boise federal courtroom today

The dispute over megaload transports on Idaho's scenic Highway 12 heads to a Boise federal courtroom this afternoon, as U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill hears arguments from both sides. The Nez Perce Tribe and Idaho Rivers United have sued the U.S. Forest Service for failing to block a megaload transport in August, after Winmill ruled last winter that the Forest Service has jurisdiction over the transports through the national forest and designated wild and scenic river corridor; the Forest Service had initiated a study and consultation with the tribe over the issue and asked the Idaho Transportation Department not to issue permits for the giant load while those efforts were in progress, but when it did anyway, the federal agency didn't stop the transport. Protests ensued as the load traveled the route, and among those arrested were nearly every member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.

The giant loads are so large that they block all traffic on the on the narrow, two-lane highway, creating rolling roadblocks. Resources Conservation Company International, a division of General Electric that sent the big load and has another one awaiting transport on the route, has intervened on the side of the Forest Service in the case, and says it stands to lose $3.6 million if it doesn't get the loads to the Canadian oil sands on time. In addition, the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association, which represents the oversized-load trucking industry, has filed to participate in the case on the Forest Service's side. 

The tribe and IRU are asking the court to immediately block any further megaloads from the route until the Forest Service completes a corridor study and consults with the tribe about the transports, as required under an array of federal laws. "The agency cannot simply waive or defer its consultation responsibilities until after the management activity occurs because to proceed with enforcing its directives would be inconvenient or politically challenging for the Forest Service," attorneys for the tribe and IRU wrote in documents filed with the court. The Forest Service counters that it's made no final decision that could be reversed by the court, and still is studying the issue; it argues that if the tribe and IRU want to block ITD from issuing permits, it should sue ITD. Click below for a preview of today's hearing from AP reporter John Miller.

Federal judge to hear arguments over megaloads
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho American Indian tribe gets its chance Monday to convince a federal judge to block huge oil-field equipment shipments on a winding mountain highway that cuts across its reservation.

The Nez Perce Tribe and attorneys for a unit of General Electric Co. that's shipping gear north through Idaho to Alberta's tar sands will each get about a half hour in U.S. District Court in Boise to make their case.

The tribe, joined by environmental group Idaho Rivers United, wants Judge B. Lynn Winmill to halt further shipments of gear the groups say will cause irreparable harm to the rights and interests of the Nez Perce people and damage environmental values along U.S. Highway 12. The shipments would wind their way through a federally designated Wild and Scenic River corridor along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers.

Resources Conservation Company International already shipped one of its 225-foot-long, 640,000-pound water evaporator loads along the highway in August, an event marred by protests and arrests of foes.

It has another waiting in the wings at Washington's Port of Wilma, downstream on the Snake River, and says any delays could cost it $3.6 million in damages if it doesn't deliver the water evaporators on time in the Canadian tar sands.

Winmill's Boise courtroom is the latest theater in a three-year battle over whether the two-lane highway is an appropriate route for enormous, industrial-scale "megaloads."

In its lawsuit, the tribe alleges the U.S. Forest Service shirked its responsibility to prevent August's GE shipment through Idaho. It's demanding that no shipments be allowed absent tribal consultation — or the completion of a corridor impacts study scrutinizing how shipments might harm the Nez Perce Tribe's treaty rights.

"This road along the Nez Perce trail is incomparable in its beauty, as well as its cultural value to the Nez Perce people," Tribal Chairman Silas Whitman said in a statement.

The Idaho Transportation Department issued a permit for GE's first shipment of gear in early August. The trucks took several days to get through Idaho, though they were halted several times by rock-throwing protesters, several of whom were arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct.

The U.S. Forest Service, a co-defendant in the tribe's lawsuit, contends the shipments would have only limited impact on the highway.

"First of all, the transport of the megaloads now has only a transitory impact, at most," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Joanne Rodriguez in court filings. "Plaintiffs have not shown that the roadway is being altered to allow passage. There are no 'corridor modifications' ongoing now. Traffic impediments are transitory, and only made worse by protesters."

The Forest Service maintains it's only just begun a study of shipments' impacts to the corridor.

It also requested that the Idaho Transportation Department hold off on issuing permits for shipments, to no avail.

If anything, Rodriguez said, the tribe should be suing ITD and the company transporting GE's gear, not taking the federal government to court.

Omega Morgan, the Oregon-based transport company responsible for the shipments, told The Associated Press Monday it's following the outcome of Winmill's hearing closely.

"There is a load parked at the Port of Wilma but none currently on the road," said Olga Haley, an Omega Morgan spokeswoman.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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