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Idaho roads agency appeals wide-loads ruling

U.S. Highway 12 runs through the scenic Clearwater/Lochsa River canyon (Courtesy photo / Clearwater National Forest)
U.S. Highway 12 runs through the scenic Clearwater/Lochsa River canyon (Courtesy photo / Clearwater National Forest)
BOISE - Idaho’s transportation chief said Monday that a court decision revoking permits for giant truck shipments on scenic U.S. Highway 12 from Moscow to Lewistion could “end up restricting commerce and limiting business opportunities.” Director Brian Ness’ comments came as the Idaho Transportation Department joined ConocoPhillips in appealing the decision to the Idaho Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the high court granted motions from both ConocoPhillips and ITD to expedite the court appeal, rather than take the usual time - averaging 450 days - to hear a civil appeal. However, it set oral arguments for Oct. 1. That’s expedited for a Supreme Court appeal, but it’s not quick enough to allow Conoco to move the four giant shipments before paving starts on the second lane of the Arrow Bridge on Highway 12, as it had hoped. Because the loads are so wide they’ll take up both lanes of the bridge, that means the earliest they could move - if everything went Conoco’s way - would be late October, when the paving job is scheduled to be completed. One side of the bridge already has been paved; Conoco’s trucking contractor, Emmert International, has been paying the ITD’s contractor to hold off on paving the other lane while the permits were tied up in court. ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said Monday that Emmert is paying the contractor, McAlvain Construction, to “stand down” on the construction job through Sept. 7; McAlvain will have to make up the lost time through additional crews or added work hours. Conoco, in its motion to expedite the appeal, said it stands to lose $9 million if it can’t move the loads right away - because if the four loads don’t get to Montana now, it’ll have to wait until next summer to make needed repairs at its Billings refinery. The loads consist of two giant, 350-ton coker drums, both cut in half, that will replace aging 1992 models now at the refinery. They were manufactured in Japan and shipped by barge to the Port of Lewiston in May. Attorneys for the three Highway 12 residents and business owners who sued to block the shipments said there was no need to speed up the case. They argued that Conoco earlier said it had to move the shipments by last week or suffer big losses; now, they argued, it’s too late to beat the Arrow Bridge paving project. Plus, they said in court documents, “For the world’s third largest oil and gas company, which earned $4.2 billion in the last quarter alone, such alleged losses are immaterial and insignificant, even if these untested allegations are true.” The residents maintain that ITD violated its own regulations in issuing permits for the huge loads, because those regulations require traffic delays not to exceed 10 minutes, and they require a determination of “necessity” and giving public safety and convenience top priority in weighing such permits. They argued the loads threatened public safety, business, tourism and the environment in the pristine river corridor. The permits required the loads to travel at night, and pull off into turnouts every 15 minutes to let traffic pass because they’d block both lanes of the two-lane highway. “If the department is not allowed discretion in determining acceptable delays, we will end up restricting commerce and limiting business opportunities,” ITD Director Brian Ness said Monday as the department filed its appeal. “For example, there are many communities in Idaho where a manufactured home could not be located, because it is not possible to get it there without delaying traffic for more than 10 minutes. The department is committed to doing the right thing for highway users by ensuring minimal delays.” Ness also declared that the department hadn’t made up its mind on the permit until it was issued a week ago, even though the drums already had been moved to Lewiston months earlier. “ConocoPhillips took a calculated business risk in moving the loads to the Port of Lewiston. At no time did its decision factor into our process,” he said. In papers filed with the Idaho Supreme Court, ITD argued that 2nd District Judge John Bradbury’s ruling on determining “necessity” would force it to explore alternate routes through other states or even other countries for every oversized-load permit; ITD said it issues 28,000 oversized-load permits a year. However, the proposed Highway 12 shipments are unprecedented for both their size and volume. Concern is especially high about the four big Conoco loads because they’re the first of more than 200 similar shipments proposed to travel the state- and federally-designated scenic byway over the next year. The route, once explored by Lewis and Clark, runs along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers and is dotted with campgrounds, hiking trails, historic sites and popular whitewater rafting stretches. Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil has permit applications pending to send 207 loads of Korean-manufactured equipment for its Alberta oil sands project over the route, through Montana and up to Canada, starting in November; it’s already spent $440,000 to improve turnouts along the route. The firms’ Kearl oil sands project is set to begin operating at the end of 2012; 2,500 people already are working at the site. The oil sands region has five active strip mines now and seven more planned over the next decade. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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