LEWISTON, Idaho (CN) - Idaho is letting an Exxon subsidiary transform a scenic highway into a dangerous, noisy, infuriating shipping route, endangering travelers by hauling giant loads of foreign-made equipment to Canada, an environmental group says. Friends of the Clearwater sued the Idaho Transportation Department - but not Exxon - in Ada County Court.
Idaho's Clearwater River flows nearly 75 miles from its headwaters in the Bitterroot Mountains, near the Montana border in Idaho's lower Panhandle, to join the Snake River at Lewiston.
Friends of the Clearwater claims that in defiance of public outcry - and state law - the state illegally issued a memorandum of decision allowing Exxon subsidiary Imperial Oil to take more than 200 mega-loads of Korean-made, preassembled equipment up Highway 12 to the Kearl Oil Sands Project near Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Highway 12 cuts across the lower Panhandle, a spectacularly scenic drive of 101 miles. The state designated it a scenic byway in 1989 and the federal government followed, naming it the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway and an All-American Road.
"These designations reflect the fact that the Idaho stretch of Highway 12 is considered a 'destination in itself' so exceptional that travelers would 'make a drive along the highway a primary reason for their trip,'" the complaint states, citing 60 Fed. Reg. at 26760.
It adds: "In authorizing Exxon-Imperial to transport more than 200 of these 'mega-loads,' ITD has consequently violated its own regulations, which require ITD to deny oversized load permits when the shipments do not serve public safety, public convenience or preservation of the highway system."
There are alternative routes, but Highway 12 is the cheapest way to go. Exxon has paid to move power lines and upgrade turnouts to handle loads up to 24 feet wide, 196 feet long and 30 feet tall, which weigh more than 500,000 pounds.
"The Kearl loads exceed the length, width, and weight restrictions for vehicles traveling on highways located in the State of Idaho under Idaho law, as well as the normal capacity of all twenty-one bridges on Highway 12 between Lewiston and Lolo Pass," the complaint states.
Highway 12 follows the Clearwater River for about 7 miles and enters the Nez Perce Indian Reservation before crossing the Clearwater several more times. The first load alone took out trees and clipped a guy wire that wrapped around power lines, blacking out power to more than 1,300 homes and businesses. The oversized shipment sat in a turnout for two weeks before it continued its journey to Canada.
The Kearl Project loads, which are carried primarily at night, have opened a Pandora's Box, the Friends of the Clearwater say.
Other corporations received the same special. Petroleum giant Conoco (Phillips 66, Union 76) has sent mega-loads of its own through the corridor and Harvest Energy, owed by the Korean government, has met with ITD to discuss its proposal to haul 60 mega-loads of equipment to a new oil refinery in Conklin, Alberta.
The plaintiffs say the road has been degraded to the status of a corporate concubine. They say the mega-loads "will undermine the highway system by setting a precedent and encouraging others to use Highway 12 as a high-and-wide corridor."
Work on Highway 12 and the hauling of heavy equipment are destroying a road that attracts thousands of people every year to a part of Idaho that depends upon tourism, the plaintiffs say.
The work on the road has degraded scenery, created a safety hazard, has delayed traffic by as much as an hour and a half at a time, and could interfere with emergency medical services, the plaintiff says.
According to its own traffic plan, Exxon-Imperial's large equipment haulers and their supporting vehicles are supposed to delay traffic for only 15 minutes at a time.
"A convoy of 20 or more support vehicles, including a super-sized pull truck, a super-sized push truck, at least two police cars, an ambulance, and several ¾-ton pickup trucks, must accompany the loads," the complaint states. "This parade of vehicles is more than a mile in length and emits noise significantly louder than the commercial traffic that currently uses Highway 12. In order to facilitate nighttime travel, the equipment modules and their entourage of support vehicles are fitted with numerous lights several times brighter than the high beams of regular traffic."
The state has received more than 1,300 comments since April, from residents complaining of safety, environmental and aesthetic concerns.
"The public's comments alerted ITD to numerous ways in which the Kearl Project would adversely impact public safety and convenience, including, but not limited to, the delays Exxon-Imperial's loads would cause to commuters and logging trucks who use the road at night, the adverse effect traffic delays and equipment parked on the side of the road would have on the area's tourism industry, the impracticality of extracting a mega-load from the river if there were to be an accident, and the danger of blocking the public's only route to the local emergency room," the complaint states.
Friends of the Clearwater says the Transportation Department granted the permits arbitrarily and capriciously. It wants the permits revoked, and costs.
It is represented by Natalie Havlina, with Advocates for the West, of Boise.
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