The Idaho Supreme Court’s 3-2 decision to overturn a lower court ruling that would’ve blocked the four mega-loads of oil refinery equipment gives the Idaho Transportation Department a second chance to handle this issue the right way.
The court case turned on a technicality, with three justices deciding that it was beyond the court’s purview to adjudicate the permitting decision. That returns the controversy to ITD, where a spokesman said Tuesday that there had been no decisions on how the agency would proceed.
Litigants who opposed permits for the late-night rolling roadblocks on U.S. Highway 12 hope that the agency heeds the call from the many critics who have decried the informal and rather secretive process. We concur. Formal hearings that seek public input ought to be held before a precedent-setting decision is made.
This is not merely a matter of four wide loads being shipped by ConocoPhillips from the port of Lewiston to its refinery in Billings. Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil wants to transport as many as 207 mega-loads of equipment on the same highway, with the eventual destination being the mammoth Kearl Oil Sands Project in Alberta. A South Korean company reportedly is considering another 40 to 60 oversized loads.
Though the court declined to intervene, the majority opinion noted, “It is entirely possible that respondents have real grievances with ITD’s decision in this case.”
The best way to find out is to hold open hearings.
As we’ve said, the concerns of residents along the winding highway that is bounded by the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers should be taken seriously. The loads weigh more than 300 tons and would take up both lanes of the highway, pulling over every 15 minutes to allow other vehicles to pass. It would take four days to travel from Lewiston to Lolo Pass. We cannot fault the fretting about how a steady rumbling of shipments would impact tourism or emergency transportation. The process to date has not respected these concerns.
We understand the desire of ConocoPhillips to get permits rather quickly, because the onset of winter conditions could block any transports until spring. But the company still needs to get the required permits from Montana, so there is no guarantee that this excursion could take place this year.
We’re more concerned about the long-term prospects of using a nationally recognized scenic byway as the main overland route between Asian heavy equipment suppliers and a Canadian mining operation. State leaders in Idaho should feel the same way. This court ruling gives them another chance to take a more thoughtful, inclusive approach.
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