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It was bad day for big oil last May when the electricity failed in a home 200 feet above the Clearwater River in north-central Idaho. Lin Laughy and his wife Borg Hendrickson are at the end of the grid, which prompted Laughy to drive along U.S. Highway 12 to see if the nearby town of Kooskia still had power. On that drive, he had an encounter that brought home to him the threat of mega-trucks blocking travel both ways on the scenic byway. Soon, the couple became the epicenter of a people’s campaign that has spread throughout the region and beyond. The objective of the campaign is to save one of America’s most beautiful roads from heavy industrial traffic that they see as certain to tarnish, if not destroy, its fame as a gateway to wild and scenic recreation. Two developments on Oct. 1 could play important roles in the success or failure of that campaign. In the morning of that day, the Idaho Supreme Court heard legal arguments for and against allowing mega-loads on Highway 12. The five justices gave no indication of when they will issue a decision. Later that day, a newspaper in Washington reported that on Oct. 4, the Port of Vancouver would receive its first of 15 shiploads of giant equipment that would travel to oil sands mining sites in Canada via barge to Idaho’s inland Port of Lewiston and then by mega-trucks along Highway 12 and up through Montana. Nine giant modules arrived Sunday night and are being stored in Vancouver

Standing in the Way: How One Idaho Couple Plans to Stop Big Oil’s Big Rigs, Part 1

It was bad day for big oil last May when the electricity failed in a home 200 feet above the Clearwater River in north-central Idaho.

Lin Laughy and his wife Borg Hendrickson are at the end of the grid, which prompted Laughy to drive along U.S. Highway 12 to see if the nearby town of Kooskia still had power. On that drive, he had an encounter that brought home to him the threat of mega-trucks blocking travel both ways on the scenic byway. Soon, the couple became the epicenter of a people’s campaign that has spread throughout the region and beyond. The objective of the campaign is to save one of America’s most beautiful roads from heavy industrial traffic that they see as certain to tarnish, if not destroy, its fame as a gateway to wild and scenic recreation.

Two developments on Oct. 1 could play important roles in the success or failure of that campaign. In the morning of that day, the Idaho Supreme Court heard legal arguments for and against allowing mega-loads on Highway 12. The five justices gave no indication of when they will issue a decision. Later that day, a newspaper in Washington reported that on Oct. 4, the Port of Vancouver would receive its first of 15 shiploads of giant equipment that would travel to oil sands mining sites in Canada via barge to Idaho’s inland Port of Lewiston and then by mega-trucks along Highway 12 and up through Montana. Nine giant modules arrived Sunday night and are being stored in Vancouver

“Our intent, as stated all along, is to transport them from the Port of Vancouver to the Port of Lewiston,” Pius Rolheiser, spokesman for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil Canada, told the Missoulian. “The timing of that is a bit uncertain at this point, but it’s certainly our intent to begin moving them to the Port of Lewiston in the near term.”

* * *

BORG HENDRICKSON

BORG HENDRICKSON

LIN LAUGHY

LIN LAUGHY

Laughy and Hendrickson, grandparents who have been together for three decades and raised their children in the area, first heard in April about the possibility of mega-rigs hauling oil company equipment on the highway. Even then, giant coke containers were rumored to be heading by barge toward the Port of Lewiston, to be trucked from there in four loads to an oil refinery in Billings. Hendrickson learned from a friend, Ruth May, who owns the Reflections Inn along the highway, that more than 200 mega-loads could be trucked on this route to Montana and then north into Canada.

After the power failure at their home a couple of weeks later, Laughy stopped on his drive to town when he saw Idaho Power linesmen working on utility poles. He asked what the problem was, and the men said they were raising utility lines 30 feet higher, to accommodate the huge trucks that would be traveling under them. “We were concerned, but it was still not quite as personal as it became,” Laughy said. “I emotionally locked myself into this when I took a drive up the Lochsa River and thought, how can they possibly get around these curves?”

The Lochsa, a tributary of the Clearwater, parallels a 70-mile portion of the twisting highway, which Laughy began measuring. He found that the road is 22-1/2 feet wide, with a four-inch shoulder of soft gravel about 10 feet above the river. By this time, in mid-May, he and his wife were well into researching the issue, and knew that the mega-rigs, which have 18-foot-wide axles, were expected to swing wide to get around rocky outcrops on the road’s landward side. He didn’t see how that could be done. The loads, to be moved at night, would weigh between about 500,000 and 650,000 pounds and would be more than 200 feet long.

Changes had been made to a 23-mile upriver section of the highway the previous summer, but the public didn’t know then that mega-loads were planned.

In late June of 2010, the Idaho Transportation Department’s spokesman, Mel Coulter, told the Lewiston Tribune that the paving and addition of curbs to graveled turnouts from the town of Syringa to beyond the town of Lowell in 2009 had nothing to do with oversized loads. Hendrickson said area residents were suspicious, because gabions or wire baskets filled with rock had been placed on the river bank to support the road’s shoulder. “This made us realize there was a big picture involved,” she said.

No official word was released of any “big picture,” but as Laughy and Hendrickson kept digging, they began to gather evidence of a quiet plan to turn the highway into a so-called “high-and-wide” industrial corridor. They contacted Advocates for the West, a Boise-based nonprofit law firm. Attorney Natalie Havlina gave them a letter she had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that from Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to the Port of Lewiston commissioners. Dated Jan. 9, 2009, the letter expresses Otter’s strong support of the search by Imperial Oil and its majority owner, ExxonMobil, for an alternate shipping route to their oil sands mining project in Alberta via the Columbia-Snake River System and Lewiston. Hendrickson said she learned from Missoula lawyer Bob Gentry, a former employee of the Montana Department of Transportation, that the rivers-Idaho-Montana route would trim 5,300 nautical miles and 1,400 road miles from the traditional supply route to mines in Canada, which goes from the Panama Canal to Houston and up through the Plains states.

Havlina also provided the couple with a letter she obtained through FOIA from the Idaho Congressional Delegation of Senators Mike Crapo and James Risch and Representatives Mike Simpson and Walt Minnick. Dated Feb. 5, 2009, and addressed to the port’s commissioners, it gives their enthusiastic support for the planned shipments and states that they understand “there exists the potential to import hundreds of component modules” through the port. Minnick later said he favored more study of the issue.

A Montana contact sent the investigators a slide show that carries the byline of Jim Lynch, director of the Montana Department of Transportation. Dated July 9, 2009, the presentation affirms Exxon/Imperial Oil’s intention to create “permanent high/wide corridors” through Montana to transport oversized loads.

The ITD had issued a press release in September 2009 concerning several grant applications it had made for federal stimulus funding. One of them was for about $11.4 million to improve the Port of Lewiston and Highway 12, of which $9.5 million would be for reconstructions of the road. Laughy and Hendrickson saw and publicized a revealing passage in the application. “Oil companies working in the Kearl Oil Sands Region of Alberta, Canada have discovered the Columbia-Snake Port System,” the document stated. “If one oil company is successful with this alternate transportation route, many other companies will follow their lead.”

Hendrickson and Laughy circulated numerous other discoveries. “However,” Hendrickson wrote in an e-mail, “I should mention that since we began our efforts last spring, we have received many links, documents, hints, direct information, personal anecdotes, data, statistics, clues, and suggestions from all sorts of people living in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, and Alberta, Canada.”

***

On May 17 of this year the saga took another turn, when the coke barrel modules that had been rumored to be on their way were off-loaded at the Port of Lewiston. These were intended to be the first four mega-loads on the highway during the summer, but they were for a ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings rather than for Imperial Oil’s project in Canada.

Laughy kept digging and Hendrickson kept developing the website she had set up, Fighting Goliath, on which she posted much of what they were learning. During the spring and summer, they worked days and nights gathering and disseminating information on the mega-rigs issue. Through FOIA, they obtained the transport plans of both ConocoPhillips and Imperial Oil and studied them. E-mails, phone calls, regional media reports and conversations in the street escalated.

In late May, IDT crews trimmed what proved to be about 500 trees along the highway. On June 2, Hendrickson and Laughy sent a letter to Gov. Otter about their concerns, which they followed with a series of mini white papers they researched and disseminated on key aspects of the issue. By June, public awareness was so high that the Idaho Transportation Department scheduled three open houses, at Lewiston, Moscow and Kooskia. During the meetings at the end of June, Imperial spokesman Rolheiser said the company had no further plans for more oversized loads on the highway after they delivered 207 modules to the Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta, although other companies might make similar shipments.

The oil sands project, which is open-pit mining with an estimated 4.6 billion barrels of recoverable crude bitumen and an expected life span of more than four decades, has a targeted first phase startup date of late 2012. The project is within the Athabasca Oil Sands, one of the world’s largest such deposits. Among other major players in the region are Suncor, Syncrude and a joint venture operated by Shell Canada. Last year a U.S. Department of Energy report indicated that Canada is expected to become an increasingly important source of world oil supply. More than 95 percent of its proven oil reserves are in the oil sands of Alberta, the mining of which has prompted intense opposition from environmentalists.

ITD district engineer Jim Carpenter tried to turn the June 29 Kooskia meeting into a public relations presentation that disallowed questions, but Laughy took the microphone and successfully gained the crowd’s support in obtaining a change in format. Searching through ITD’s regulations, Laughy had read that oversized loads cannot interrupt low-volume traffic for more than 10 minutes. When Carpenter mentioned a 15-minute rule, an audience member who had seen Laughy’s research asked for clarification. Laughy said Carpenter’s reply was that the department had always used 15 minutes and he had never heard of a 10-minute rule. This time issue became a centerpiece of a legal tussle in Idaho courts.

PART 2:We had exhausted all other possibilities aside from litigation.

About Steve Bunk

Comments

  1. Ellie Hampton says:

    Please continue to cover this issue. U.S. 12 is a scenic byway, a historical route and one of the most beautiful byways in America. Tourists and local industry can’t stand another blow – the one that will certainly occur if word gets out that mega industrial shipments will meet drivers on the highway at night – and I can’t believe they won’t be there in the daytime too. Promises by big corporations (especially big oil) are seldom kept.

    One more thing, Idaho is a poor state and can’t afford to fix the long term damage that will surely be inflicted on this road. Bad idea all the way around.

    I don’t believe for a minute that the State Transportation Dept. couldn’t have sent out more notice – years ago – when this was in the initial planning and consideration stages.

  2. Loree Westron says:

    The IDT and Exxon/Imperial Oil thought they would be able to instigate this terrible environmental crime without a public outcry, and if not for Linwood Laughy and Borg Hendrickson’s determined efforts to get the message out to the people they might have succeeded. Thank you, Linwood and Borg, for your tireless work. You’ve got the IDT shaking in their boots!

  3. JENNIFER says:

    I moved my family to this area because of it’s incredible beauty and wildlife and to get away from overdevelopment and traffic hazards common elsewhere in the country. The fact that any government official for Idaho or Montana is even willing to put the Wild and Scenic river corridor at such risk for the small fees (that ITD has admitted won’t even cover the paperwork!) is beyond reason! The small amount of flagger jobs will not even begin to compensate the rest of the state that will lose not only tourist dollars, but also something that all who live here or have visited here treasure; and that is the beauty and wilderness that follows the Clearwater River along it’s path. It is designated as A Wild and Scenic Byway, A signifigant part of the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Gateway to the Wilderness. I would hate to see that destroyed just for the sake of the oil companies’ mileage and profit margin!

  4. Lanie Johnson says:

    Many thanks for this excellent article with its complete history of the BIG OIL scheme. Among other things, I hadn’t known how Lin first discovered the 30 foot increase in height of the power lines. Lin and Borg have been doing an incredible job!
    There is one other important concern besides destruction of the area’s natural beauty. As the article so clearly describes, Highway 12, barely wider than the big rigs and with many curves and rock out-croppings, is an accident waiting to happen. Maybe many accidents. If/when rigs fall into the river there will be not only pollution to clean up but who knows how long the highway will be blocked in order to clean up the accident. I hope that there will be a future article with details on this danger.

  5. Jan Blakslee says:

    The Kearl oil project carries with it immense risk and probability of destruction of habitat. A magnificent scenic highway would be compromised, local inhabitants would see no benefit, a corridor for future megaloads would be created and a number of regulations violated. Scenic beauty and a natural setting would be forever endangered. The probability of just one mishap from 207 megaloads is likely…how do you get a 275 ton steel structure retrieved from the river if it falls in? How do you let emergency vehicles pass when inevitable mechanical transport breakdowns occur? Why does the Idaho Transportation Department summarily and unilaterally dare issue permits that are so in conflict with public opinion, its own regulations and the integrity of a pristine scenic byway? Wake up!

  6. Michelle Perdue says:

    Regarding Governor Otter’s closing on his letter to the Port of Lewiston, “As Always – Idaho, ‘Esto Perpetua’” I wonder if he knows what “Esto Perpetua” means?

    If projects like these continue to invade Idaho, Idaho will be like everywhere else and that will be the greatest loss.

  7. Gary Macfarlane says:

    This project is all about destroying a wild and scenic river corridor to get the dirtiest oil imaginable. The damage to people and the environment in northeast Alberta where the tar sands are located is massive. Given the citizen outcry here, one would expect the political leaders in Idaho would come out strongly against this proposal. Then again, we live in a country where corporations have most rights of citizenship, without being subject to laws citizens must obey. Thus, it is not surprising most Idaho elected officials have not come out against this project. Since money is more important than citizens to most politicians, our voices need to be much, much louder. Thanks for covering this important issue.

  8. Mii says:

    Does anyone else see in their mind’s eye the image of Tianimin Square, 1988?

  9. Steph Smith says:

    This whole issue is so disheartening on many levels, but the two most glaring are the fact that a truly rare and beautiful area is being sold out for a few paltry bucks and that our “representatives” from both ID and MT are more than willing to sell us out. Benefit? Who benefits? Certainly not the citizens, not the visitors, not the environment, not the state coffers? Who then?? Big oil does and they don’t even bear the consequences or the true costs. We do and we have been given little, if any, recourse in the matter. In fact it was sprung on us at the last minute by “representatives”, who knew the potential for a firestorm backlash from the citizens, hoping to slip it by us. Thanks go to Borg and Lin for their care, concern and leadership for getting on to this quickly, digging hard, forcing issues, getting answers and sounding the alarm.

  10. Michael Loftis says:

    Re Day v. Night moves.

    In MT at least, it’s NOT “big oil” enforcing the night moves, its our own DOT. And you can’t just “run into” one of these big loads, unless you’re really blind. They’ll have flaggers ahead and behind the loads, they’ll be directing traffic, and more so, here in MT at least, the DOT has required a 15 minute maximum on blocking traffic.

    Assuming the DOTs are halfway savvy about how they do the permitting/etc, the road will be safer, and better maintained, thanks to the funding provided by the permits and use fees.

  11. Richard Wesson says:

    The powers-that-be seem to have regarded this as a slam dunk. I feel people have awoken to how horrible this idea really is and are beginning to seriously resent how they have been excluded from any input whatsoever. Regardless of any legal decision, I’m predicting that citizen protests will break the political will, and I know a lot of people fired up enough to man the barricades to make that happen. Politicians and Big Oil beware!

  12. A. Gianis says:

    MSNBC – for what it’s worth – has been attempting to counter the Glen Becks of the worldfor a while now. I get the feeling sometimes that I’m the only person watching. Then last Monday, R. Maddow went to Deleware in an effort to meet Rep. Senate Cand. C.McDonnell. – to no avail. But she did meet some folks who had been watching MSNBC. Ave. Age — 80yrs. They were angry, informed and motivated. Angry about how Fox News et al were skewing information in an effort to swing an election, informed enough not to be fooled and motivated to get out and campaign for both the truth and their cand.Coombs. Like the vampires of yore, Big Money,et al, hates the limelight. Go Borg.

  13. Cheryl Halverson says:

    To the Montanan who thinks the roads will be safer and better maintained due to the use fees. Perhaps that will be true in Montana but here in Idaho the DOT admitted that the user fees will not even pay for the paperwork and research done to date let alone anything past this point in time. And a transportation commission appointed by the governor was surprised to learn just how much more wear is caused by a normal 18 wheeler over the normal car or pickup. It turns out that individual users in Idaho are paying more of their share in gas taxes and licence fees than the big rigs by a significant percentage. At the last moment just before the court battle began our Governor decided to ask for a $10 million bond-something that would never have happened without the citizen outcry. Unfortuneately that will only be useful to repair immediate damage. Long term wear that does not show up immediately but which wil be accelerated by the increased size and frequency of big rigs is harder to allocate. Taxpayers in Idaho will pay the bill.

  14. Michael Loftis says:

    @Cheryl Halverson — then the IDOT should be held to the fire and blamed. IDOT has always had a hard time keeping roads adequately maintained (take Hwy 93 for one example, as soon as you leave the MT side going South it’s obvious — even the interstates aren’t often as well maintained as in other states — I grew up in southern Idaho mind you too) I haven’t seen one singular shred of evidence supporting any of the environmental outcry. A lot of claims, but no research, no actual data.

    The project definitely won’t be hugely beneficial to anyone but the oil companies. However the DOTs can make it at least somewhat so for the rest of us.

    Instead of concentrating on fighting it at all costs maybe people need to step back and see what it would take to make it acceptable. Life is compromise. I imagine the Hwy 12 everyone seems to love so much was someones … most hated thing when it was first built.

    I’m more aware of the issues MDOT has raised and settled than IDOT, not to say that either of them was very open abotu the project in the beginning.

  15. Darlene Grove says:

    Again, the citizens of Montana and Idaho are being asked to sacrifice their most beautiful places for the benefits of corporations and their CEOs. Both states have a long, long history of exploitation starting with mining in the 1800′s. We are now paying billions of dollars of taxpayers dollars to clean up the mess. Yet Exxon, Conoco Phillips and others are proposing to ruin another area that eventually you and I will have to restore, if its possible.

  16. Al Poplawsky says:

    There comes a point when you can no longer compromise. The proposed conversion of this natural jewel – probably the most beautiful natural corridor in Idaho situated between a million acres of roadless lands to the north and the spectacular Selway Bitterroot Wilderness to the south – into an industrial corridor is exactly that point. The people of Idaho would lose and the mega-corporation would continue to rake in billions in profits from a morally corrupt tar sands operation in Canada. It is not the people of Idaho who need to compromise, its the corporation which needs to find a solution that is acceptable to the people!

  17. Bill in Montana says:

    Hey Guys–what do you think the Highway system was desinged for???
    Many of you have this anti-everything going…we need to get this economy going and moving equipment is part of the solution!

  18. Carolyn Hopper says:

    I have faced Governor Schweitzer at a meeting when he was in town for a brief visit and showed up a a fundraiser for a local woman running for re-election.

    I asked him about his consideration for the development of coal mining in the state and what he is planning on doing regarding working toward other energy gathering forms in the future.

    He answered that we have a product in this state – coal – that is needed and also are developing wind farms. Even with wind,he said, the energy still has to be transported. So, what to do when citizens don’t want the towers needed to move the energy. Hmm
    Good question.
    I guess we’re going to have to figure out how to balance turning on lights with how to get the electricity to us. Tricky balance.

    Regarding the highway 12 – I am against more ruination of natural beauty and will write all Governors involved about this .
    Thanks for the reporting!
    I have driven that road and am appalled at what is planned

  19. Carolyn Hopper says:

    and write the DOT of each state. Nothing is hopeless until all avenues have been pursued

  20. Cheryl Halverson says:

    But this particular highway was not designed for such wide loads. In fact one of the groups that will be impacted is the other truckers-who do drive at night who will be slowed down by this thing that takes both lanes plus of the highway.

  21. Leigh Lustre says:

    What a great article! Thank you for sharing the story! Reminds me of Margaret Meade’s quote about never doubting what a small group of thoughtful people can do. Borg and Lin are an inspiration to us all! I cannot wait to share this article (tweet, face book, email and good old fashioned paper).

  22. dave says:

    Get over it. This is what our highways are designed to do …..transport commodities. They are paid for by ALL OF US… if these two people paid all the costs would be a different story.

    Enough of the obstructionists. Get the job done and may the trucks blow their air horns for five minutes as they go by these people’s house.

  23. Cheryl Halverson says:

    This highway was not designed for this size transport. Nor are people obstructionists who worry over their livelihood and the well being of their community. The numbers don’t add up. One group loses (travel & tourism, outfitters) while another wins (port workers) and according to the best figures available it means a net loss in money to the economy of North Central Idaho. And we still don’t know what it will cost the taxpayers of Idaho. We can’t afford net losses to our economy just to save foreign companies money.
    Dave needs to learn to quit calling names. Tacky that.

  24. Sam & Pat Monger says:

    Won’t take up space restating all the many reasons why this project should not be allowed to take place.

  25. Hazel Pflueger says:

    Thank goodness that Lin Laughy investigated his lack of electric service some months ago and for the fortitude of him and his wife, Borg Hendrickson to investigate and inform citizens about the planned and prolonged travel of these much-oversized rigs over the scenic Hwy. 12. Their diligence in fighting “Goliath” is a remarkable achievement and we should thank them and the press for reporting this. To those who think that these rigs will help our economy, check out the facts. The citizens of Idaho and Montana will be stuck with the maintenance bill for years and the oil companies will be laughing all the way to the bank.