A state judge has brought a temporary halt to a ConocoPhillips plan to truck oversized loads of massive oil refinery equipment along curvy, scenic U.S. Highway 12 in north central Idaho.
The temporary restraining order, issued Tuesday by 2nd District Judge John Bradbury, is an initial victory for residents and business owners who oppose plans to transport the heavy machinery along a roadway that traces the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers.
Three Idaho residents filed a lawsuit Monday asking Bradbury to step in and block the first of what could be more than 200 oversized truckloads through the corridor. ConocoPhillips had hoped to begin as early as Wednesday hauling coke drums – each exceeding the state limit for length, weight and height – from the port in Lewiston, along the corridor to Lolo Pass, then to its refinery plant in Billings, Mont.
Later this year, Exxon Mobil Corp. is targeting the same roadway for up to 200 shipments of Korean-made equipment destined for the Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta. Officials estimate each load will weigh more than 300 tons, reach 27 feet high and stretch 29 feet wide, taking up both lanes of the roadway and slowing nighttime traffic along the winding, two-lane highway.
In his ruling, Bradbury sided with the plaintiffs, finding on his initial reading of their case that the Idaho Department of Transportation may be violating its own regulations in issuing permits to ConocoPhillips.
Laird Lucas, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the state agency has ignored regulations which require that public safety and convenience be considered key factors in the permitting process for oversized loads. Lucas also said the agency failed to thoroughly consider other alternatives for the shipments.
“The deeper issue here is this roadway the right path?” Lucas said. “What other alternatives are there? Nobody seems to know, and that’s a real problem. We don’t think it’s reasonable that Highway 12 is the only place you can haul this equipment.”
The judge’s decision was made without considering arguments from agency attorneys. Bradbury scheduled a hearing for Friday in Grangeville to hear both sides before deciding whether to issue a longer-term injunction on the ConocoPhillips shipments.
Transportation Department spokesman Jeff Stratten said the agency will comply with state law for oversize permits and is continuing its analysis of the ConocoPhillips permits.
Stratten said Highway 12 has been used in the past by truckers hauling oversized loads. The agency typically issues about four approvals per year for shipments ranging from houses to farm machinery and wind turbines.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has also convinced the oil companies to post $10 million bonds on the shipments to cover any potential damage.
The plaintiffs in the case are Linwood Laughy and his wife Karen “Borg” Hendrickson, who live and operate businesses along the route, and Peter Grubb, who guides in the area and operates a lodge on the Lochsa River.
The plaintiffs and other foes of the trucking proposals say the roadway is inappropriate for heavy, oversized shipments. They say the trucks will pose a threat to public safety and emergency services, along with an unnecessary risk to a pristine river corridor.