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.”
* * *
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.