Tribal representatives, environmentalists and residents along Highway 12 in Idaho celebrated something of a victory last week. General Electric subsidiary Resources Conservation Company International voluntarily withdrew an appeal of a federal court order banning the transport of oversized loads through the Clearwater-Lochsa River corridor. The months-long delay caused by the legal battle forced the company to redirect its focus, given the time sensitivity of getting its equipment to the Alberta tar sands.
Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Silas Whitman hailed the withdrawal as "a significant step forward for not only the Nez Perce people but all persons who believe this special area should not be transformed into ... an industrial corridor." Whitman was quick to note, however, that the backing-down of RCCI was merely "one small part of the overall effort needed" to protect the wild and scenic stretch of Highway 12.
"This solidifies the injunction that's in place and will remain in place for the foreseeable future," Kevin Lewis, conservation director for the nonprofit Idaho Rivers United, said in a statement shortly after RCCI's Oct. 24 withdrawal. "Instead of spending our time in court we need to be working with the [U.S.] Forest Service to solve this problem. The threat of industrialization of this amazing place is still very real."
The Forest Service, which was barred from approving megaload transports under the court order RCCI had appealed, has yet to complete consultation with tribal officials or release an impact study outlining the potential costs to environmental, social and cultural assets resulting from megaload activity. RCCI argued in court this fall that the delay could cost the company as much as $85 million.
The first of the GE subsidiary's two 255-foot, 644,000-pound evaporators headed up Highway 12 in early August the same day the Idaho Transportation Department approved the oversized load permit. The shipment occurred despite repeated requests from the Nez Perce National Forest not to approve the permits until the Forest Service had a chance to formally consult with tribal officials. Dozens of Nez Perce tribal members temporarily blocked the megaloads' passage in protest several nights in a row, resulting in the arrest of eight of the nine Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee members.
The second evaporator is currently sitting at the Port of Lewiston, awaiting transport by shipping company Omega Morgan. In light of the legal withdrawal, megaload critics now suspect RCCI will shift its focus to an alternate route through Idaho and Montana via the interstate system.