Tribe issues statement opposing big loads

Idaho Transportation Department is accepting citizen feedback as it considers permits

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Environmental and safety concerns prompted the Nez Perce Tribe to oppose plans of Imperial Oil to haul more than 200 huge trucks across Idaho’s panhandle on U.S. Highway 12.

“The project would be an unprecedented use of Highway 12 that the Nez Perce Tribe believes would establish a dangerous and unacceptable precedent in one of the most beautiful and pristine federally-protected corridors in the United States and home to the Nez Perce people since time immemorial,” according to a tribal statement issued Friday.

Imperial Oil wants to send more than 200 loads of Korean-made oil processing equipment from the Port of Lewiston to the Kearl Oil Sands Project in Alberta, Canada.

The loads would consume two lanes of traffic, be as long as 210 feet and weigh as much as 580,000 pounds. Travel would be limited to nighttime hours. The trucks could delay traffic no longer than 15 minutes and would cover the distance in three days.

The trucks would be going through the Nez Perce Reservation for 70 miles.

How much weight the tribe’s opinion will carry is not clear. The tribe will submit its comments to the Idaho Transportation Department, which is accepting citizen feedback as it considers if it will issue permits for the loads.

Asked about what jurisdiction the tribe has over U.S. 12, Darren Williams said, “We’re still exploring all options.” Williams is a staff attorney for the tribe in Lapwai.

An ITD spokesman had a different response to the same question. “As far as I know, none,” said Mel Coulter, in Boise. “It’s still a U.S. highway designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. As a federal highway, ITD is given responsibility for maintaining it.”

Coulter had not had an opportunity to review the tribe’s statement since it was issued just minutes before he was contacted. Attempts to reach Imperial Oil Friday were unsuccessful.

The tribe’s worries are based on information that surfaced in meetings hosted by ITD and Imperial Oil this week and in discussions with Imperial Oil and the contractor it’s hiring for the hauls.

The tribe finds it “highly doubtful” Imperial Oil could come up with any plan that would “effectively respond” to a catastrophe were one of the rigs to slide into the Clearwater or Lochsa rivers, according to its statement.

According to previous statements, Imperial Oil would call a crane to remove the load from the river. The closest could arrive in 10 hours and is based in Spokane.

“In an emergency like this every second counts,” McCoy Oatman, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said in the statement. “Obstructing the Lochsa or Clearwater rivers with equipment of this size and weight would be disastrous. There is nothing in the current proposed plan that adequately addresses this real possibility.”

The tribe’s opposition extends to where the equipment is headed. “The tribe will also not support, even indirectly through this project, an environmentally destructive method of petroleum extraction that will have profound negative impacts on the First Nations communities of Canada,” according to its statement.

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