Crossroads 

From economic optimism to outright opposition, big oil's proposed "heavy haul" has divided cities and towns along the route.

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"It is my opinion that authorizing these loads will ultimately lead to future additional proposals," Rick Brazell, Forest Service supervisor for the Clearwater National Forest, stated in a letter to Idaho Transportation Department Director Jim Carpenter in September 2010. "And while one or two projects might be tolerated, more frequent occurrences of such loads are not the experience people traveling, living, working, and recreating on U.S. Highway 12 expect."

Doeringsfeld respects the rights of those opposing the loads to voice their concerns. Yet he questions the actual impact the heavy haul—or the establishment of the permanent oversized corridor he feels could save the port—will have on residents, small businesses and the environment. These loads will pass through by night, he says, and by day will only occupy two turnouts along the entire 202-mile stretch of Highway 12. He acknowledges that a portion of that roadway bears the federal designation of a wild and scenic byway, but believes that designation "does not trump that it's also a corridor for commerce."

click to enlarge Highway 12 follows the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers from the Port of Lewiston to Lolo Pass. This narrow, windy riverside road was designated a scenic byway by the state of Idaho in 1989. It is also one of only 31 All-American Roads recognized by the U.S. Department of Transportation. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Highway 12 follows the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers from the Port of Lewiston to Lolo Pass. This narrow, windy riverside road was designated a scenic byway by the state of Idaho in 1989. It is also one of only 31 All-American Roads recognized by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"A lot of times I see in the media stories that it's a scenic byway that Lewis and Clark [used]," Doeringsfeld says. "Well, let's go back. Why was Lewis and Clark there in the first place? Thomas Jefferson sent them out on an expedition to find a waterway to promote commerce east and west in the United States. I'd throw out there that Lewis and Clark would be pretty darn happy that the mission that they were sent out on is helping to come to fruition 100 [sic] years after their expedition."

Highway 12 resident Linwood Laughy, one of the intervenors in the legal battle against the ConocoPhillips loads, doesn't quite share Doeringsfeld's historical analysis. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark nearly died, he says, when the Corps of Discovery crossed the Bitterroot Mountains into Idaho in the winter of 1805—205 years ago.

"One of the biggest disappointments of the captains, as well as of the president, was that there was no passage," Laughy says. "That's one of the things that they were looking for, and they discovered it didn't exist. The country was simply too rugged for that. It seems to me that's the same situation today."



Highway 12

The view from Laughy's back porch two miles east of Kooskia overlooks an open stretch of the middle fork of the Clearwater River, which Congress selected as one of eight waterways nationwide to include in the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The federal protections promised under the act were supplemented in 1989 when the state of Idaho declared Highway 12 a scenic byway, and complemented even further with an All-American Road designation in 2005. In Laughy's eyes, the shipments ConocoPhillips and Imperial Oil propose to move along this route fly in the face of those longstanding protections.

"I don't know many places you can go sit at seven in the morning and watch the sun come up on a white sand beach that's 150 yards long beside a river that's so clear you can drink out of it, and be the only person on the beach," Laughy says. "To think that we're going to sell that out to giant international corporations for nothing? I mean, I wouldn't sell it for anything, but it seems ludicrous to us. It's just not right."

Laughy and his wife, Borg Hendrickson, first became aware of the proposed heavy haul in spring 2010. The revelation came when the power went out and Laughy drove down the road to investigate, a story the retiree is fond of telling.

"I saw these guys down there putting a new [power] pole in," Laughy says. "It was a couple hours after the outage, so I pulled over and asked 'How long before the power goes back on?' They said pretty soon, and I said, 'Nice new pole.' They said, 'Yeah, we're raising all the power lines to 30 feet.'"

The surprise and confusion generated among locals by the unexplained advanced measures taken to accommodate the heavy haul prompted Laughy to dig deeper. The more he and Hendrickson learned, Laughy says, the more worried they became. Their reservations about the apparent secrecy of the project eventually prompted them to file a petition last summer against Idaho's permitting of the ConocoPhillips loads.

"The oil companies came in and met with various groups, county commissioners and so forth," Laughy says of the first string of public meetings early last year. "The message was essentially, 'Hey, this is going to be good for you. You're going to like this. It's just going to be this one time, we're going to do it at night, you'll hardly know we're here and we'll drop a little money along the way. And besides, we're not asking.' There was that undertone. 'This is a courtesy call. We're here to inform you.'"

Laughy and his fellow concerned citizens near Kooskia banded together as the grassroots opposition movement Fighting Goliath last summer. They've worked to collect their own data concerning the dimensions and condition of Highway 12—Laughy spent many days on the road with a tape measure recording road widths—to develop a baseline with which to monitor the loads when they do go through.

click to enlarge Linwood Laughy’s back porch overlooks a pristine stretch of the middle fork of the Clearwater River along Highway 12. He filed a lawsuit over Idaho’s approval of the ConocoPhillips shipments last year. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Linwood Laughy’s back porch overlooks a pristine stretch of the middle fork of the Clearwater River along Highway 12. He filed a lawsuit over Idaho’s approval of the ConocoPhillips shipments last year.

The greatest fear at present is that one of the oversized shipments will slip off the road and into the river while navigating the hairpin turns along the scenic byway. Concern that such an accident could pose major consequences for fisheries extends from residents to Nez Perce tribal members. As Nez Perce Tribal Attorney Darren Williams says, "If one of these falls in the water, you could potentially have just created an artificial dam on the Lochsa River instantly, which would not be good."

ConocoPhillips stated for nearly nine months that such an accident would require the use of a 500-ton crane trucked in from Spokane (the nearest cranes fitting ConocoPhillips' need are actually located as far away as Salt Lake City). Emmert International changed its tune last month, however, declaring that any equipment that falls in the river will be ruined and cut up as salvage. Imperial Oil has yet to issue any similar change.

"If a company seeking an over-legal permit fails to demonstrate a trip can be made safely, without risk to roads and bridges and with minimal disruption to traffic and emergency services, the transportation department has the legal authority to deny the permit," ITD says of its ability to deny future proposals.

Mammoet, the Dutch corporation charged with transporting the 207 megaloads for Imperial Oil, has repeatedly stated in public meetings that the odds one of its shipments of equipment will go off the road are slim. Yet Mammoet has experienced two accidents involving oversized loads just in the last seven months. One Imperial Oil shipment went off a highway near Whiting, Ind., in late July last year, rupturing a fire hydrant and creating low water pressure and contamination problems for nearby residents for two days. Roughly one month later, a second Mammoet load went into a roadside ditch in Alberta; the driver, who had to be extricated from the vehicle by emergency personnel, suffered a broken leg. Both accidents occurred in sunny weather on dry, wide, flat roads.

"Crooked Fork, the bridge over Crooked Fork, has that curve and has a 12.5 percent slope," Laughy says, singling out a bridge just a few miles away from Lolo Pass as an example of the challenges big rig handlers will face. "If there's any ice on that at all and you're not going a reasonable speed, you just start sliding. I've been in that situation with a wreck one time. I started to slow down and was going to stop, and I just felt my rig going sideways. Those things can only go five miles an hour. What if it's slick?"

Fighting Goliath successfully stalled ConocoPhillips shipments for months with repeated petitions to ITD, and already has petitions filed against Imperial Oil's permits in case they are approved. The group continues to unearth ever more troubling information regarding the big rig proposals. Laughy recently discovered that the oversized load permits approved by ITD for ConocoPhillips last November—before his group petitioned for a contested hearing—include a stipulation that the shipping company, Emmert International, is authorized to "barricade the approved turnouts for exclusive use for the wide loads up to 24 hours in advance for each move." Such barricades would restrict access to public lands for the recreating public, and could infringe on salmon fishing access rights guaranteed to the Nez Perce Tribe under treaty by the federal government.

General concerns over treaty rights and cultural and natural resources prompted the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee to issue a resolution in July 2010 stating the tribe "opposes the Kearl Module Transportation Project." The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (SKT) issued a similar statement last summer.

click to enlarge The proposed route for Imperial Oil’s Kearl Module Transportation Project covers roughly 500 miles of highway through Idaho and Montana, cutting through pristine scenic corridors and bisecting small towns in the dead of night on their way to ExxonMobil’s Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta.
  • The proposed route for Imperial Oil’s Kearl Module Transportation Project covers roughly 500 miles of highway through Idaho and Montana, cutting through pristine scenic corridors and bisecting small towns in the dead of night on their way to ExxonMobil’s Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta.

"These areas remain of great importance to our people," SKT Council Chairman Bud Moran wrote to MDT Director Jim Lynch. "Our use of them is guaranteed by treaty. Federal and state governments bear a trust responsibility to safeguard those rights. From the Lochsa River to the Rocky Mountain Front, literally dozens of our traditional placenames line the planned route. Many of these names are rooted in our creation stories, reflecting the spiritual importance of these places."

Access to the wild and scenic Clearwater and Lochsa rivers may prove a short term casualty to the heavy haul, but others on Highway 12 worry about the long term implications of the Port of Lewiston's push to establish a permanent oversized corridor. Steve Pankey, an associate broker with Idaho Country Properties in Kooskia and 30-year veteran of the real estate market, says even the project proposals themselves could prove devastating for property values on Highway 12.

"Real estate values can be impacted positively or negatively from just rumors, let alone the actual fact," Pankey says. "If these in fact start hauling 200 some loads, it will have in my opinion a negative impact on property values...As much as half of their value could be lost."

A portion of that value lies in scenic easements many property owners opted into after Highway 12 won its scenic byway designation. The easements ensured the views from riverside properties within the wild and scenic corridor would remain protected from future commercial development or residential subdivision, and dramatically increased the premiums on real estate upriver of Kooskia.

Now Pankey believes those easements will be rendered moot by constant oversized load traffic.

"I can't give you a number, but when these loads start moving along there and somebody comes along and looks at property up there and I tell them we'll have these loads at night and probably during the day...that isn't what they want to come to this area to enjoy and spend their major dollars for," Pankey says.

The same will certainly be true for property values all along the route, Pankey continues. And the losses, which will only add to a weak real estate market on Highway 12, won't stop at premiums for scenic easements.

"Our prices are down anyway from the highs, but we sure don't want to end up completely destroying the property base, which will also impact our county tax base," Pankey says. "It's going to be like dominoes."

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