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Sunday, February 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Wide loads both risk, nuisance to scenic road

(T)his beautiful route begins on U.S. 12 at Lewiston, and traverses the winding Clearwater River Canyon …. Another segment continues east … along the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River, and the Lochsa Wild and Scenic River, through a magnificent wilderness ….

From the “Scenic Byways” link on the Idaho Department of Transportation website.

Until an Idaho judge whistled timeout this week, the transportation corridor described above, renowned for its scenic splendor and historic significance, was on the verge of becoming the route for a year of oversized truckloads from the Port of Lewiston to Canada.

“Oversized” is an understatement. The rigs and their cargo of coke drums and other massive equipment bound for the tar sands of Alberta weigh more than 330 tons. They’ll be taller than a two-story building, as long as three conventional 18-wheelers and wide enough to block both lanes of Highway 12.

A court hearing is scheduled for Monday in Grangeville on whether a preliminary injunction should be ordered to halt progress on ConocoPhillips’ application for the permits required to exceed state limits on such big rigs.

The ConocoPhillips request would cover a mere four trucks that had been intended to begin this week. Later, Exxon Mobile Corp. seeks similar permission for 207 loads over the course of a year.

In their eagerness to back the Port of Lewiston, which derives revenue from this kind of business, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter was an eager supporter of the plan, and the state Transportation Department was moving the process along. But it shouldn’t have taken a court action by worried residents to make sure the proposed activity gets the broader public scrutiny it deserves.

Otter did persuade the two oil companies to post $10 million bonds to cover the consequences of a possible mishap – although the BP experience on the Gulf Coast should remind us not only that a few million dollars may be inadequate, but that some damage to fragile waterways is beyond our ability to repair at any cost.

The trucks in question will move only at night and will pull over at 15-minute intervals to let other vehicles pass. But it will take them four days to negotiate the 175 winding miles. That would mean that on any given evening, two or more such loads would be found somewhere along the route.

No wonder residents of the area are worrying about what happens if emergency vehicles are needed and how this intrusion will impact their daily lives and the tourism that feeds their economies.

Oversized permits have been issued on this stretch of highway before, but never for loads so large and only three or four a year. ConocoPhillips’ plan alone would match the average year. Exxon Mobile’s would equal more than 50 years’ worth of oversized permits.

State officials owe their constituents a more thorough public consideration of these requests. Before Idaho accepts the intrusion, inconvenience and risk associated with these transport plans, the burden must be on the applicants to demonstrate sufficient precautions are in place.

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