By Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press
SPOKANE — Residents along U.S. 12 asked the Idaho Transportation Department on Thursday to conduct formal hearings before issuing any special permits allowing oil companies to transport huge loads of refinery equipment over the roadway.
Earlier this week, the Idaho Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that had blocked the shipments. But the Supreme Court ruling opened the door for the first contested hearings on the shipping proposals.
Environmentalists contend the huge loads, which require temporary closure of the two-lane highway, will disrupt public safety and convenience. They also complain the process for issuing oversize load permits has been conducted behind closed doors with little public input. Their first request for a public hearing was rejected last week.
The opponents, area residents Linwood Laughy, Borg Hendrickson and Peter Grubb, are also seeking to become legal interveners in the hearings.
“This filing should force ITD to hold a formal contested case hearing, complete with evidence and witnesses,” said Laird Lucas, an attorney for Advocates for the West. “This way we can get all the facts out of smoky back rooms and on the table.”
Officials for the Transportation Department and Exxon Mobil Corp. did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
There are two separate proposals to the ITD for permits to move refinery equipment, and opponents asked for a public hearing for both of them.
One proposal, which was the subject of the Supreme Court case, involves four shipments by ConocoPhillips between the port of Lewiston, Idaho, and Billings, Mont. The second proposal calls for Exxon to ship more than 200 loads of equipment from the port to the tar sands of Alberta, Canada.
In August, 2nd District Judge John Bradbury stopped the four shipments by ConocoPhillips, telling the highway agency it hadn’t done enough to ensure public safety and convenience.
In vacating Bradbury’s decision, the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case. Instead, it ruled that Bradbury’s decision was premature because transportation officials had not yet issued a final order on whether the shipments could proceed.
Last week, ITD denied opponents’ initial request for a contested hearing for the Exxon Mobil loads, citing the pending Supreme Court decision and ITD’s own power to resolve permit applications.
The loads bound for Canada must also get permits from Montana to travel through that state.
Opponents contend the shipments imperil the federally protected Lochsa and Clearwater rivers that parallel the highway. They would also convert the scenic road into an industrial corridor, ruining the experience of many people who use the area for recreation.