BOISE, Idaho - An environmental group wants a federal judge to step in and block plans to haul dozens of oversized truckloads of oil refinery equipment over U.S. Highway 12 from Idaho into Montana, along a federally protected river corridor.
Idaho Rivers United filed its complaint Thursday in U.S. District Court in Boise against the U.S. Forest Service, alleging the agency neglected its duty and federal laws by allowing Idaho officials to give ExxonMobil Corp. permits to haul the giant loads along Highway 12.
The highway stretches across north-central Idaho, from Lewiston to the Montana border at Lolo Pass, and a significant portion of it passes along the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers. The rivers were among the nation's first to be protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act approved by Congress in 1968.
Last month, the Idaho Transportation Department granted ExxonMobil a permit for a test run of the massive loads and suggested permits be approved for up to 200 additional loads destined for the Kearl Oil Sands project in southern Alberta.
The lawsuit accuses the Forest Service of sidestepping its authority to enforce federal laws established to protect designated river corridors and making some legal mistakes in the process of planning for the shipments.
"We have a responsibility to protect the Clearwater and Lochsa, the way we see them now and enjoy them now, for our children and their children," said Kevin Lewis, conservation director for IRU, a nonprofit with 3,500 members. "The Forest Service shares that responsibility and should be leading the charge for protection."
Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing agency policy on pending litigation.
The lawsuit is the latest challenge to shipping plans approved by Idaho and pursued by oil companies that see the two-lane byway as a viable and cost-effective means for getting giant refinery equipment from the port in Lewiston to inland locations. So far, ConocoPhillips has used the roadway to truck two of four loads to its refinery in Billings.
Opponents of the shipments, a mix of residents who live along the highway and business owners, fought ITD for months in state court and a series of administrative hearings to prevent permits being issued for the ConocoPhillips loads. They unsuccessfully argued that the loads would threaten public safety and convenience, backing up traffic for extended periods in the middle of the night.
They also claimed approving the shipments would turn the highway into a virtual frontage road for big-scale, commercial trucking, a move that could risk pristine rivers and a tourism industry supported by anglers, hunters, hikers and others who appreciate the natural beauty of a region once trekked by Lewis and Clark.
While the battle against Conocophillips focused on the state agency, opponents now are turning to the federal courts and the Forest Service to block the bigger wave of Exxon loads that could begin moving as early as this summer. The lawsuit cites several other companies that have had discussions with the state to ship dozens of oversized loads along the highway in the future.
ExxonMobil spokesman Pius Rollheiser did not immediately return telephone messages left by the Associated Press on Thursday. The company was not named in the lawsuit, but it's unclear how a prolonged legal tussle in the courts could impact the company's travel plans.
ExxonMobil has already scaled back its proposal, opting to shrink about 60 of the loads so that they can be moved on interstate highways farther north. The test load already permitted for travel along U.S. 12 is 24 feet wide, 30 feet high, 208 feet long and weighs approximately 508,000 pounds.
In its lawsuit, Idaho Rivers United claims the Forest Service was wrong in determining it lacked jurisdiction to enforce federal laws in the corridor. The Forest Service granted the state an easement in 1995 to maintain Highway 12 through the Clearwater National Forest on conditions the state preserve roadway for its scenic and aesthetic values, according to the lawsuit.
IRU lawyers argue the agency has a legal obligation to step in and protect the corridor and its environmental, historic and cultural resources.
"By abdicating jurisdiction, facilitating ITD, and refusing to enforce the numerous legal authorities that protect the federal public lands and resources that may be impacted ... by these megaloads ... the Forest Service has violated its responsibilities and mandatory duties," the complaint states.