Big load permit power questioned

Environmental groups challenge IDT in debate over allowing oversized loads on U.S. 12

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Three environmental groups are contesting the assertion of the Idaho Transportation Department that it must issue permits for oversized loads if haulers can prove their ability to navigate a road safely without causing damage.

That stance of ITD has been a key part of the debate as Imperial Oil makes plans to haul more than 200 loads that would consume two lanes as they cross Idaho’s panhandle on U.S. Highway 12 bound for the Kearl Oil Sands Project in Alberta, Canada.

But representatives of Advocates for the West, Idaho Rivers United and Friends of the Clearwater say their review of Idaho code and ITD’s regulations found no basis for that position, said Kevin Lewis, conservation director of Idaho Rivers United in Boise. “The ball is in (ITD’s) court now. It’s up to them to do the right thing.”

Idaho statute gives ITD discretion in authorizing loads that exceed the normal size, according to comments environmental groups submitted Wednesday.

ITD regulations state the primary concern of the department with such permits should be the safety and convenience of the general public and the preservation of the highway system, according to the comments.

ITD will refer the issue to the deputy attorney general who serves the agency, according to an e-mail from Mel Coulter, a spokesman for ITD in Boise. “We are aware of the questions regarding ITD’s obligation to issue permits if transporters meet ITD’s criteria.”

The views were among more than 400 comments ITD received regarding the loads during a comment period that ended Wednesday.

ITD will answer the questions raised in the letters sometime in August, and they will be a “factor” in determining if Imperial Oil will get permission to take its oil processing equipment through Idaho, said Adam Rush, public involvement coordinator for ITD in Boise.

The Korean-made processing equipment would be barged to the Port of Lewiston, then transferred to trucks that would take it the rest of the way.

The journey from Lewiston to Montana would take three days, because the trucks would only be allowed to move at slow speeds at night. They would have to pull over every 15 minutes to allow traffic to clear.

Some want the Imperial Oil plan to move forward. Among them are Port of Lewiston officials. The new customer at the port would allow it to add five to six employees and retain four others.

The positions would be mainly for full-time dock workers, and would carry benefits. “This would more than double the Port of Lewiston’s dock operations workforce and ensure experienced, marine personnel remain employed,” according to a letter the Port of Lewiston is sending ITD.

The business would come at a critical time for the port. The volume of paperboard, dried peas, lentils and garbanzo beans it ships in containers to the Port of Portland has declined to levels not seen since the late 1970s, just after slackwater came to Lewiston. Until now, the vast majority of cargo going through the Port of Lewiston has been outbound.

The Port of Lewiston believes Imperial Oil has gone to sufficient lengths to mitigate the effect of the large loads, according to the letter which was signed by Todd Maddock, president of the Lewiston Port Commission: “In our opinion, Imperial has developed a safe and efficient plan that will minimize impacts to the public and highway.”

Lewiston has already gotten a glimpse of the type of commerce such loads could bring to the area. Drums were shipped for Conoco Phillips from Japan to the Port of Lewiston on their way to Billings, Mont., where they’ll be trucked in four loads. Like the Imperial cargo, they will also take two lanes of road.

The drums are sitting at the Port of Lewiston waiting completion of work on the Arrow Bridge. ITD may issue a permit later this month that would allow them to continue their trip. The port received $7,000 for a week of labor it did preparing for the arrival of the drums, and is charging about $12,000 for two months of storage.

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.