Court hears mega-loads case

No word from Idaho Supreme Court on when ruling will be issued in controversy over Highway 12 shipments

By Rebecca Boone of the Associated Press

Saturday, October 2, 2010
BOISE – Idaho’s highest court is deciding whether huge loads of oil refinery equipment destined for Montana should be hauled along the winding, narrow stretch of U.S. Highway 12 that bisects north central Idaho.

The battle pits representatives for a big oil company eager for progress on a refinery project against rural Idaho residents who fear they’ll be trapped on a temporarily dead-end highway. Determining the winner could all come down to a few legal questions of jurisdiction, the definition of convenience and the interpretation of some Idaho Transportation Department regulations.

Larry Allen, the Idaho deputy attorney general representing ITD, said the case really comes down to two issues: first, whether the department properly applied its own regulations over how traffic flows during transport, and second, whether the department properly applied its discretion in granting the permits to ConocoPhillips earlier this year.

He said the answer to both questions is yes.

The department “was convinced that with the plan in place it could protect the public safety,” Allen said.

But Laird Lucas, the attorney representing Linwood Laughy and other residents who sued the department and ConocoPhillips to stop the permits, said the department is playing fast and loose with its own regulations, relying on an undated, unsigned memo less than a page long that found Highway 12 represents the only route for the equipment instead of undertaking a full study of the issue.

Attorneys argued their case before the Idaho Supreme Court Friday morning. The justices took the matter under review, and did not say when they would issue a ruling.

If ConocoPhillips wins the battle, it will open the door to more than 200 additional oversized loads Exxon Mobil Corp. hopes to ship from the Port of Lewiston to the Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta, Canada, Lucas said. Permits for the Exxon Mobil shipments have not been issued by the transporation department, and the department’s attorneys maintain any decision on those permits will be weighed separately from the ConocoPhillips case.

Both sets of shipments would start at the Port of Lewiston, with trucks hauling the huge loads along a 172-mile stretch of Highway 12 to Lolo Pass on the Montana border. The loads would consume both lanes of the highway, which travels along parts of the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers, both of which carry the Wild and Scenic designation.

The plan calls for the equipment to be hauled at night, stopping at some of the 78 turnouts identified along the route to let stalled traffic pass.

Erik Stidham, the attorney representing ConocoPhillips, said the company believes the permitting process in this case worked exactly as it should. A decision by 2nd District Judge John Bradbury rejecting the permits earlier this year used the wrong standard of review, Stidham contended, with the judge improperly second-guessing the agency’s review process.