With the first oversized shipment of ConocoPhillips oil equipment scheduled to leave the Port of Lewiston late tonight on its trek down Highway 12 to Billings, Montana, the cofounders of the Idaho-based citizens’ movement against the shipments have expressed a mixture of fatigue, dismay and resolution.
Linwood Laughy and his wife, Borg Hendrickson, say they’ve learned a lot from the struggle. But not every lesson was uplifting.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that being a citizen activist is challenging, gut-wrenching, exhausting and worth doing,” said Laughy. “It’s shaken my faith, I guess, in the American democracy. It seems to me we’re quickly becoming a plutocracy.”
“I wouldn’t call it a plutocracy, although in part it is,” Hendrickson said. “I would call it a corporatocracy. And we’re getting a first-hand picture of that right here.”
Laughy and Hendrickson, two of the three plaintiffs who challenged the shipments in court, said they were taken aback by how the system worked. “An Idaho state agency, without a single public hearing, has the power to reconfigure the nature of an entire river valley,” said Laughy. “That’s been a tough lesson for me to learn.”
Hendrickson expressed frustration that regional Forest Service officials made no actual effort to protect the highway’s famed recreational and environmental values from the megaloads. She acknowledged that agency officials wrote letters opposing the shipments, but said they also gave permission to widen the narrow, twisting road, install retainer baskets in the riverbank and remove vegetation. “They have not done anything in terms of an act that defends the Wild and Scenic River corridor.”
Hendrickson and Laughy, along with 11 other intervenors against the Conoco loads, announced recently they would not pursue further options to halt the four shipments. However, they intend to contest proposed shipments by other companies, including 207 megaloads that Imperial Oil, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, wants to bring from Lewiston through Montana to the massive Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada.
“We have limited resources and we need to look at where they can be used to our best advantage to prevent conversion of Highway 12 into a high-and-wide corridor for megaloads,” Laughy explained.
He emphasized that the intervenors against Conoco had not exhausted their options, but had made a “strategic decision” to turn their attention toward other potential shipments, particularly those of Imperial Oil. All 13 intervenors intend to mount a legal challenge to that company’s plans.
Last week, more than 100 of the almost 4,000 citizens who signed a petition against the shipments carried signs and placards of protest along a public road around the Conoco coke drums at the Port of Lewiston. This week, a few people intend to monitor the loads through Idaho, looking for infractions of the permits’ regulations, such as not staying between the fog lines or causing traffic delays of more than 15 minutes.
The couple said they didn’t know how many people would be involved in the monitoring, but it would not be a large number, and there would be no interference with the shipments. “We’re going to be engaged in the legal activity of driving,” Hendrickson said.
The first shipment is expected to take four days to reach Lolo Pass from Lewiston. The second shipment is scheduled to leave Lewiston on Saturday night. The last two loads are not expected to leave the port until around mid-March.
These four shipments were allowed through a hearing process, not through the decision of a judicial court, which is why Imperial Oil’s proposed 207 shipments loom as the next court battle.
Last summer, an Idaho district court judge ruled on legal grounds in favor of halting the Conoco shipments, but that decision was set aside in the fall by the state supreme court, which determined that courts had no jurisdiction, because prescribed procedures for formally contesting decisions of the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) had not been followed.
In November, an attorney appointed by ITD director Brian Ness presided over an informal hearing on the issue, after which he recommended that permits for the four shipments be issued. Ness followed with his recommendation.
The first 34 of the 207 Imperial Oil modules were barged to Lewiston before the Columbia/Snake River system was closed Dec. 10 for repairs to the locks. River traffic will recommence around mid-March.
Laughy expressed curiosity about the Montana government’s failure thus far to complete an environmental assessment of the proposed Imperial loads that it instigated last summer, which must be done before permits can be issued.
“That’s curious to us,” he said. “What’s holding that up? But meanwhile, Imperial Oil cannot construct the turnouts until it’s been determined there be no significant environmental impact.”
Jim Lynch, director of the Montana Department of Transportation, has said 53 new turnouts must be constructed to accommodate the oversized shipments and 22 others must be paved between Lolo Pass and the Port of Sweetgrass at Montana’s border with Canada.
Another battle could arise against Harvest Energy, which has expressed a desire to ship 40 oversized loads via Lewiston to the Alberta tar sands. Early this year, Canada’s Harvest Energy became 100 percent owned by the state-run Korea National Oil Corporation.
Referring to state troopers who accompany megaloads through Idaho, Laughy remarked, “I find it particularly interesting that our state could be contracting out our police to the South Korean government.”
With regard to megaloads, in general, and Highway 12, the couple foresees a long drama.
“What we’ve been going through, particularly these last few months, has truly been a dress rehearsal,” Laughy predicted.
“We do recognize that it may be a very long battle,” Hendrickson agreed, “perhaps significantly longer than what we’ve done already, and it may get beyond the two of us at some point, but it will still be there.”
Laughy declared he and Hendrickson could leave the state now without any diminution in the will of the citizens’ opposition to megaloads. “With the help of many others, we’ve started a fire,” he said. “It’s burning out there.”