Opponent says ITD took shortcuts

Critic lists reasons to rethink megaload permits; motion for speedy verdict denied

By Todd Dvorak of the Associated Press

Friday, December 10, 2010

BOISE – One of the biggest critics of a plan to ship four giant loads of refinery equipment along U.S. Highway 12 first learned of the project when the power at his home went out one day last April.

Lynwood Laughy, who lives along the federal scenic byway, said he didn’t need to look far to find the cause of the outage: Utility crews down the road were hoisting power lines to make way for the tall, wide and heavy loads.

The educator and writer has been fighting the plan ever since. In Boise Thursday, Laughy ticked off a list of reasons why he and others want Idaho highway officials to rethink their decision to give ConocoPhillips permits to ship the megaloads across the winding, mountain roadway.

Laughy called the shipments a risk to public safety and accused the Idaho Transportation Department of taking shortcuts in its review of the company’s travel and safety plans. He criticized the agency for not getting the public more involved early on and for refusing to consider alternative routes.

Then he questioned the merit of allowing a federally protected river corridor, prized for its scenic, environmental and cultural values, to be turned into a virtual frontage road for big, industrial haulers.

“This is recognized by people all over the United States as a very special road,” said Laughy, one of 13 people fighting the permits.

The so-called “contested hearing” ended Thursday after two days of testimony from agency officials and executives from the oil and shipping companies.

Now, hearing judge Merlyn Clark will review the testimony and previous briefs filed in the case before submitting a recommendation to ITD Director Brian Ness. Clark said he hopes to issue his findings and recommendation before the end of the month, leaving it up to Ness to make a final decision on the permits.

Clark also denied a motion by attorneys for ITD and ConocoPhillips for a speedy verdict. Erik Stidham, an attorney for the oil company, claimed opponents had failed to prove the state acted arbitrarily or abused its discretion when it granted the permits.

But Clark, a Boise attorney, said he needed more time to analyze the record before drafting his findings.

The hearing is the latest legal twist in ConocoPhillips’ effort to get two massive coke drums from the port in Lewiston to its refinery in Billings, Mont. Last month, Clark concluded Laughy and others had legal standing to intervene and challenge the permits, and Ness responded by scheduling the hearing.

On Wednesday, ConocoPhillips attorney Erik Stidham argued that the loads – each weighing 650,000 pounds and as tall as a three-story building – can roll without causing any hardship to public safety or convenience. He cited sections in the 700-page travel and traffic plan that call for each load to be escorted by state police, an ambulance and crew, repair trucks and mechanics, and a staff of flaggers to help manage traffic flow.

Plans also require the big trucks and trailers to pull over in turnouts every 15 minutes to allow traffic to pass as required under state regulations.

But Laughy and Laird Lucas, the attorney for opponents, contend agency officials are ignoring a rule that they say applies in this case and requires pulling over every 10 minutes. How Clark rules on this detail could be a key factor in the agency’s ability to sign off on the shipments, as well as future oversized loads poised for permitting at the port in Lewiston.

ExxonMobil Corp. has already delivered more than 30 modules to the port in hopes of getting permits to ship the components along U.S. 12, into Montana and north to the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. Those loads would be even bigger, wider and longer than the ConocoPhillips shipments.

Laughy also said he did his own research and found that some of those turnouts are smaller than sizes stated in the travel plan and too small for the loads that would be the biggest ever shipped along the roadway.

“The Department of Transportation … in a case of this importance has not done its full homework as you’d expect,” Lucas told Clark at one point Thursday. “These loads are different from any other legal load going up Highway 12, and that makes this case special. So the department needs to be held to an exact standard. While we believe they want to be in good faith, they haven’t acted that way.”