Hearing Officer Sides with Foes of Megaloads

By Beacon Staff

BOISE, Idaho – An administrative hearing judge has determined that opponents of an oil company’s plan to haul four massive loads of refinery equipment through the scenic U.S. Highway 12 corridor in northern Idaho should be allowed to intervene and challenge the state’s decision to grant travel permits

Boise attorney Merlyn Clark also determined Wednesday that Idaho Transportation Department Director Brian Ness should schedule a formal hearing to give foes a forum to make their case against the permits issued last month to ConocoPhillips.

Clark’s conclusions are only recommendations, and it’s up to Ness to decide the next step for the agency.

But his decision is clearly a victory for foes of the shipments and another costly setback to ConocoPhillips, which has been waiting for weeks to get two huge coke drums from the port Lewiston to its refinery in Billings, Mont.

Company officials say delays have already cost the company $2.5 million. But that total could reach $40 million if the drums don’t arrive in Billings by next spring, leading to a possible unplanned work stoppage at a key gasoline producer for Idaho, Montana and other Rocky Mountain states.

“We are disappointed,” said company spokesman Bill Stephens. “We do not believe the recommendation adequately accounts for the careful planning by ConocoPhillips.”

The company has 14 days to ask Clark to reconsider.

Then it’s up to Ness, who can accept, reject, modify or hold Clark’s recommendation for a full, contested hearing on the permits. Agency spokesman Adam Rush said Ness will take time to review the findings before making a decision.

Opponents of the shipments cheered Clark’s findings, saying they look forward to the chance to get involved in the highway agency’s decision-making process.

“This is a good step forward,” said Laird Lucas, the Boise attorney representing the three opponents of the shipments. “It allows the people who live along the highway, who own businesses along Highway 12 to have their voices heard. It’s been a behind-closed-doors deal so far. I’m glad we’ll have a chance now to participate.”

During a hearing last Friday, Lucas told Clark the agency failed to adequately consider the public safety and convenience when approving the company’s travel plans. He also said his clients face personal health and economic risks if the loads are allowed to proceed and deserve the chance to get involved in the process.

Clark agreed, finding that Linwood Laughy and his wife, Karen “Borg” Hendrickson, and businessman Peter Grubb, have a direct and substantial interest in the case. Laughy and Hendrickson live along the highway, while Grubb owns a lodge and outfitting business along the scenic byway.

While their objections to the ConocoPhillips shipments are the focus of this case, critics also say the agency’s actions now will set a precedent for hundreds of oversized loads being considered for a curvy road that traces the trail once trekked by Lewis and Clark and parallels the federally protected Lochsa and Clearwater rivers.

ExxonMobil Corp. already has delivered more than a dozen massive modules of massive equipment at the port in Lewiston. The company is seeking overlegal permits to haul its loads through Idaho, into Montana and north to the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada.

Each of the Exxon loads would weigh 300 tons, stretch 227 feet long, reach 27 feet high and 29 feet in width — wide enough to take up both lanes of the highway. Like the ConocoPhillips loads, trucks would roll only at night and be required to stop every 15 minutes along pullouts to allow traffic to pass.

ConocoPhillips’ troubles have frustrated Idaho business groups like loggers, miners and farmers, who view the setbacks as a threat to their own ability to ship oversized loads across state highways.

“We should all be concerned about the extra steps being required of these particular loads,” said Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, the leading business group in the state. “These permits are crucial to industries that make up the backbone of the state.”