Concerned citizens, business owners and recreationists were dancing in the streets this week when Idaho District Judge John Bradbury issued a ruling that overturns the plan to ship oversize loads of oil equipment up narrow, twisting roads through Idaho and Montana. In what is undoubtedly the first, but not the last, lawsuit against this harebrained idea, the scales of justice have tilted, for once, against the power of the multinational oil conglomerates.
The plan proposed by ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil would turn Highway 12, which is a federally designated Wild and Scenic Highway, into a permanent industrial corridor. While it would impact tens of thousands of residents and visitors, the sole beneficiaries would be the oil companies who seek to trim transportation costs by shipping the enormous equipment from Korea and Japan, where it is manufactured, up the Columbia River to the Port of Lewistown. From there, it would be loaded onto huge, multi-axle trucks to move the 300-ton loads up the winding road that follows the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers up Lolo Pass and into Montana.
The monster loads would then follow the serpentine road down to Lolo, along the Bitterroot River to Missoula, and then up the Blackfoot River. Exxon's equipment would follow the rural two-lanes of the Rocky Mountain Front to Alberta. The ConocoPhillips loads would take similar rural roadways to Laurel's refineries.
While the plan sparked fierce resistance from those who live, work and recreate on the river corridors, Idaho Gov. "Butch" Otter and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer earned "Lapdogs of Industry" awards for cheerleading the project onward, ignoring their own citizenry and lauding the millions of dollars the proposals would supposedly generate.
Both governors, having already drawn the conclusion that the project was a done deal, abdicated leadership and left it up to their respective departments of transportation to mollify the angry citizens. By law, such projects in Montana require an analysis of potential environmental effects. But instead of doing a full-blown environmental impact statement, Schweitzer assured Montanans that a minimal environmental assessment would suffice since this was a "one-time deal." Idaho, which has no statute requiring environmental review, simply ignored the very real possibility of the damages that could occur during the transportation of the huge loads up narrow river corridors and over treacherous mountain passes, and issued ConocoPhillips a permit.
The comment period for Montana's minimal environmental assessment drew thousands of responses from all over the state, nation and world. But Jim Lynch, the director of Montana's Department of Transportation, haughtily announced that since 6,000 of those responses came as form letters from the Natural Resources Defense Council, they would be counted as a single comment, further enraging concerned citizens.
The issue came to a head when three brave Idahoans—Linwood Laughy, his wife Borg Hendrickson and Peter Grubb, owner of the River Dance Lodge—took the Idaho Department of Transportation (IDT) to court. In an initial victory, Judge Bradbury refused to throw the suit out as requested by the state agency and ordered a hearing on Monday of this week. By late Tuesday afternoon, Bradbury issued his decision—and it's a doozy.
In his intelligent and thoughtful ruling (available at http://www.lmtribune.com/ filehub/linked/ORDER-Laugh-1282694010.pdf), Bradbury sided with virtually every point contested by the plaintiffs where public safety, convenience and potential problems were concerned. As for the IDT, well, Bradbury gave them credit for doing a thorough job of determining the impacts of the heavy loads on highways and bridges, but slammed the agency because "its failure to address the 'inevitable' accident or breakdown that could shut down Highway 12 for days or weeks overlooks the quintessential disaster and its effects on the users of Highway 12 that Emmert [the shipping company] itself forecasts as possible."
In a replay of the recent BP oil catastrophe in the Gulf, the shipping company acknowledged that the roadway could collapse, equipment could break down or the loads could wind up falling into the Lochsa River. To retrieve such an enormous weight from the narrow river valley would require a 500-ton crane, which needs at least a 45-by-45-foot pad to operate. Not only didn't the agency have a plan for such contingencies, there are very few areas along the long route that are wide enough to accommodate such equipment. And Idaho's own regulations require any such over-size load permits to limit traffic blockages to 10 minutes or less—a requirement the agency simply ignored and on which the judge harshly, but correctly, based much of his opinion.
Considering there's only one road down the river corridor for residents or visitors to use in the case of medical emergencies, road blockages are not merely inconveniences, but hold very real life and death consequences. As plaintiff Hendrickson wrote of her own experience: "Early one morning about three years ago I went into anaphylactic shock. If my husband hadn't been able to get me to the Clearwater Valley Emergency Room very quickly, I could have died. Waiting 15 minutes or more for ExxonMobil or ConocoPhilips to clear their wide loads from the highway might have been fatal for me."
"This is the Mouse that Roared, David and Goliath and Avatar all rolled into one," said plaintiff Laughy of the decision, adding: "We must remember that the thousands of citizens involved in this effort to protect their personal and family safety, their businesses and their lifestyles, are confronting some of the largest international corporations in the world."
This stunning court victory should be a wake-up call to both Schweitzer and the Montana Department of Transportation that these narrow rural roads are wholly inadequate for use as industrial corridors. Instead of spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars in court battles to defend the profit-driven demands of multinational oil conglomerates, Schweitzer and the department should do the right thing to protect Montanans and their environment and summarily deny the permits.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.This column was updated Friday, Aug. 27.