Federal judge agrees to halt megaloads in Idaho for now

BOISE, Idaho — A federal judge Friday blocked giant oil-field equipment from moving on a winding Idaho highway toward Canada’s tar sands, a victory for the Nez Perce Tribe and environmentalists seeking to force energy companies to use another route.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill barred the so-called megaloads from traveling through the federally designated Wild and Scenic River corridor along U.S. Highway 12 — at least for now.

First, Winmill wants the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests to assess impacts the enormous 225-foot-long, 640,000-pound water evaporator would have on the route and surrounding land, then engage the Nez Perce Tribe over its concerns.

The highway passes through the National Forest and Nez Perce tribal land, and the American Indian group contends the route isn’t appropriate and the shipments could cause irreparable harm to its people’s traditional cultural and treaty rights.

“To allow a shipment with that potential to proceed before consulting with the Tribe is likely an abdication of statutory responsibilities,” Winmill wrote. Tribal members “are not seeking damages; they are seeking to preserve their Treaty rights along with cultural and intrinsic values that have no price tag,” he wrote.

The megaloads are owned by a General Electric Co. subsidiary, and the judge’s ruling puts its next shipment, originally slated to travel from a port in Washington state to U.S. Highway 12 starting Wednesday, in doubt. The Nez Perce Tribe has little incentive to expedite a process governing loads it doesn’t want to move through its north-central Idaho reservation.

GE says it faces millions of dollars in damages and penalties from customers, if it doesn’t get its evaporators to northern Alberta’s tar sands on time.

Winmill said he was sensitive to the company’s financial plight, but that wasn’t his problem.

“This loss could have been avoided,” he wrote. GE “knowingly put its loads into a position where the company would incur $5 million in losses if it must wait for the Forest Service review.”

After the ruling, William Heins, chief operating officer for the GE subsidiary that’s shipping the evaporator, said his company believes it met requirements to safely transport the vessel and “now must review our options.”

Craig Trulock, a Nez Perce-Clearwater district ranger in Kooskia along Highway 12, said its study of shipments’ impacts to the corridor is slated to be completed by September’s end, though he’s uncertain of the timeline for consultation with the Nez Perce Tribe.

“That will depend on the tribe and how much information they want to share,” Trulock said Friday.

Michael Lopez, a Nez Perce tribal lawyer, didn’t immediately return a call.

When GE shipped its first evaporator along the route in August, 20 protesters were arrested trying to block the way, including Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Silas Whitman. In addition to Highway 12 concerns, some oppose shipments in solidarity with Canadian “First Nations” groups that have objected to energy development in Alberta’s tar sands.

Earlier this year, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests leaders also expressed concern and asked the Idaho Transportation Department to delay issuing permits for GE’s loads.

But when ITD issued the permit for the first GE load in August, however, the National Forest opted not to block it.

Instead, Forest Service officials said they were studying the issue, planning talks with tribal leaders but not yet exercising any enforcement power on grounds they were still uncertain about the extent of their authority to shutter Highway 12 to big transports.

Laird Lucas, a Boise-based lawyer for environmental group Idaho Rivers United, said Friday Winmill’s order makes that authority crystal clear by calling an obligatory “time out” for the Forest Service to assess impacts, then engage the tribe — without having to bow to political pressure from GE or the state of Idaho to force shipments through.

“These loads are larger than the Statue of Liberty,” Lucas said. “Imagine them trying to haul the Statue of Liberty up the narrow, winding Lochsa River Canyon.”

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