The citizens against the oversized oil equipment loads on Highway 12 in northern Idaho are back in the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) auditorium in Boise again today for the start of a contested case hearing against ExxonMobil’s subsidiary, Imperial Oil.
In December, ITD-appointed hearing officer Merlyn Clark allowed ConocoPhillips to transport four so-called megaloads of equipment from Lewiston to Billings. This time, several key circumstances have changed.
Perhaps the most important difference is that the Conoco hearing concerned only four Conoco loads, and Clark repeatedly said he would not consider any issue concerning future loads on the road. Imperial Oil, on the other hand, intends to truck more than 200 loads to the Kearl Oil Sands development in Alberta, Canada.
The outcome of this case will likely determine whether the state government and oil companies will be allowed to transform the highway into an industrial corridor for many oversized loads of mining equipment that several oil companies want to transport to the Canadian oil sands over the next years.
The potential for this transformation was made apparent by the first witness at today’s hearing. Ruth May, who owns a bed-and-breakfast inn on Highway 12, and is one of the official complainants or “intervenors” in the case, took a photo on Friday that was entered in evidence. It shows a tree-trimming crew shaving all the branches facing Highway 12 to their stumps on a big pine outside her inn. She said the crews had been cutting back all the extended branches up and down the road.
The reason for the pruning is that a test run of an oversized load for Imperial Oil left Lewiston on April 11, but knocked a 20-foot branch off a tree, and later hit a guy wire that closed the road for an hour and caused a power outage for five hours. The load has been stalled since then, as the subcontracted transport company, Mammoet, has worked on the clearance problems.
May testified that she believed the aesthetic attraction of her inn to tourists was damaged by the defacement of the trees. “I feel that the Wild and Scenic easement on that corridor was the asset I needed to sustain my business.” She said the inn is marketed as a quiet and beautiful getaway.
Another major difference between the Imperial hearing and Conoco’s hearing last year is the two Conoco loads that have gotten on the highway so far and the one Imperial test load have all experienced delays and difficulties in traversing the narrow, twisting road.
May testified that the Conoco loads—the only megaloads to reach her inn thus far—passed by her place within perhaps two minutes, but the entourage of police and other support vehicles began arriving about an hour and twenty minutes before the actual modules came. She said local traffic was held up for about 45 minutes near her place, 11 miles east of Kooskia, Idaho.
Before this hearing, lawyers for the citizens’ group requested the replacement of Clark, who was appointed by ITD Director Brian Ness. The intervenors charged that Clark’s written decision indicated he had not understood key facts of the case, including the length of time the loads would be on the road, and several safety issues. After consultation with lawyers on both sides, Ness appointed retired Idaho District Court Judge Duff McKee.
Yet another difference is that this hearing was not expedited as quickly as was the Conoco case, giving both sides more time to prepare. Also, it will last all week and probably into next week, compared to only two days for the Conoco hearing, allowing both sides to fully develop their cases and call more witnesses. Indeed, May’s testimony alone went for an hour and a half.
Another issue sure to be raised is that in negotiations with ITD, Imperial Oil personnel had insisted that Highway 12 was the only feasible route across Idaho, because the equipment could not be reduced in size, and the loads would be too high for overpasses on all other roads. In recent weeks, however, Imperial has been cutting down oversized modules and shipping them on another highway.
Meanwhile, legal opposition to the megaloads has escalated, with two other cases now pending. A federal court case is being brought by Idaho Rivers United against the U.S. Forest Service for allegedly abrogating its duty to protect the environmental integrity of the Wild and Scenic River corridor. Another suit has been mounted by the National Wildlife Federation, the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Montana chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Missoula County Commission against the Montana State Department of Transportation for allegedly failing to make a thorough analysis of the potential environmental and economic impacts of the megaloads traveling through that state.
Last Friday, as the Idaho leaders of the people’s movement against the megaloads, Lin Laughy and Karen “Borg” Hendrickson, made their final preparations for the hearing, they were feeling downbeat. Like Ruth May, they had watched crews “chopping hell out of the trees,” Laughy said in a telephone interview. “They’re cutting everything back at least three feet off the fog line on both sides.”
“In part, it’s been depressing to us because the Forest Service has been just sitting there, letting them do all this stuff,” Hendrickson said. “Everyone in the Wild and Scenic River corridor is obligated to abide by public property easements enforced by the Forest Service. We can’t trim branches off a tree. For us, it would be stopped. But here is big oil on the highway doing it, and the Forest Service is turning the other way.”
Hendrickson added that not only trees, but electrical lines have been affected. “Yesterday, we were watching new poles go up about six feet farther away from the highway,” she said, “which gives greater credence to our argument that this is not just 207 loads, this is a permanent transformation of the Wild and Scenic River corridor into an industrial megaload truck route. They’re going to have a harder time saying that is not the case.”
After May’s testimony, another tourist accommodation owner and outfitter, Peter Grubb, testified about the damage to his businesses of the first megaloads and his concerns about the future. Laughy, who testified in the Conoco hearing, will give more lengthy testimony this time. Other witnesses to be called by the citizens’ group include: Gary Mcfarlane, ecosystem defense director of the nonprofit Friends of the Clearwater, and representatives of about three dozen citizens who have been monitoring and filming the megaloads and their mile-long convoys.
Among expert witnesses to be called by lawyers for the intervenors are: University of Montana economist Steven Seninger, to talk about the potential economic impact of the megaloads on the tourism industry; Pat Dobie of Dobie Engineering in Boise, to discuss potential road damage, traffic, and safety issues; Lt. Allen Oswald and Capt. Lonnie Richardson of the Idaho State Police; Kenneth Johnson, project manager of Imperial Oil’s transportation program to supply its oil sands development in Canada; and staff members of ITD.