Megaloads draw Lewiston protest

Group gathers on Memorial Bridge to voice opinions about planned shipments across Idaho on U.S. Highway 12

By Joel Mills of the Tribune

Sunday, October 17, 2010

About three dozen protesters against the megaloads two oil companies want to ship over U.S. Highway 12 assembled on Memorial Bridge Saturday morning.

Carrying signs that read “Big Oil Go Home,” “The Lochsa Love It Or Leave It Alone,” “Axle of Evil” and other slogans, the protest aimed to raise awareness about the hundreds of proposed giant shipments of refinery equipment headed for oil fields in Montana and Canada.

“We put it together very quickly because we found out they just shipped the big loads from Vancouver,” Gary Macfarlane, ecosystem defense director for the Friends of the Clearwater, said of four modules from Imperial Oil that were barged to the Port of Lewiston this week.

Macfarlane said the loads weren’t expected for another week to 10 days, and he maintaned Imperial – largely a subsidiary of ExxonMobil – is trying to back the state into a corner before a court ruling is issued on the legality of permits issued by the Idaho Department of Transportation.

“We’ve basically been lied to,” Macfarlane said as the group of protesters gathered on the north end of the bridge. “It appears (Imperial is) trying to force the issue and put pressure on the Supreme Court and the state with these bullying tactics.”

Those on both sides of the issue are eagerly awaiting an Idaho Supreme Court decision regarding four ConocoPhillips megaloads stranded at the port. The court is weighing whether ITD properly issued permits for the loads earlier this year.

The decision is expected to set a precedent for more than 200 megaloads planned by Imperial for its Kearl Oil Sands Project in Alberta.

And more megaloads may be come over the next decade, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The environmental group claims that the ExxonMobil contract with South Korean manufacturer Sung Jin Geotec is with $1.5 billion over the next 10 years.

Imperial has denied it has any plans to move megaloads over the highway beyond the 207 it has publicly disclosed.

Macfarlane said the NRDC’s claims prove the oil companies want to turn the wild and scenic highway into a major industrial route.

He also claimed that opposition is starting to spread, especially with those who live along the highway.

“I think it is something that is very popular across the political spectrum,” he said, noting that he’s spoken with members of the conservative Tea Party movement who oppose the shipments.

The Nez Perce Tribe has also voiced opposition to the shipments. Tribal member Julian Matthews said he attended the protest to warn people about the environmental dangers posed by the shipments if there is some kind of accident.

“We don’t know how it’s going to impact the fish, the deer, the elk,” said Matthews, who described himself as an avid user of the tribe’s hunting and fishing privileges along the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers. “We have treaty rights up there.”

Matthews said he was also protesting to show solidarity with the indigenous people of Alberta, who oppose the oil sands project because of potential harm to caribou herds.

“I hate to see this thing because I don’t know how it’s going to impact the animals up there,” he said.

The megaloads controversy is starting to garner national attention. A freelance photographer working for the New York Times took pictures of the protest for an upcoming story by alternative energy and green business reporter Tom Zeller Jr.

Zeller wasn’t at the Saturday protest, but was on the Lochsa river gathering information for his story, according to the photographer.

The protest was staged by Friends of the Clearwater, Idaho Rivers United, Save Our Wild Salmon and the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club.

Mills may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 883-0564.