Big rig foes were pondering their next step in the wake of Idaho's decision Tuesday to let the first four megaloads of oil refinery equipment roll from the Port of Lewiston to Billings.
Idaho Transportation director Brian Ness said ConocoPhillips can haul oil drums over U.S. Highway 12, and issued permits for the first two loads to begin the journey on Feb. 1.
The announcement followed a protracted series of court and administrative hearings that began last August. The oil giant delivered the loads to the Port of Lewiston in May, and hoped to start moving them in June.
Ness accepted the recommendations of a hearing officer in allowing the hauls to proceed.
"I am convinced the record showed the loads can be moved safely, without damage to the roads and bridges and with minimal disruption to traffic and emergency services," he said in a statement. "Every argument has been heard and considered. We can no longer delay this process."
Montana is ready, too. MDT director Jim Lynch said last month ConocoPhillips had filed a satisfactory transport plan.
Weather may play a role in the timing, as could opponents who've battled tooth and nail against it. A group of intervenors in Idaho led by Borg Hendrickson and her husband, Linwood Laughy, issued a statement saying the 13 intervenors and their counsel, Advocates for the West, will confer to determine their next step.
They've threatened to take their case back to court if permits were reissued. The intervenors last year pursued the case to the Idaho Supreme Court before it was ruled the courts couldn't rule until the Idaho Transportation Department issued a final order for the hauls to commence.
In Montana, plans are under way for peaceful demonstrations against the megaloads "to make sure Conoco and the Montana Department of Transportation are aware of the thousands of people who have signed petitions in Idaho and Montana opposing these loads," said Zack Porter of Missoula, point man for All Against the Haul.
"I can't speak to legal actions against Conoco at this point. All options are still in the air, but we are planning for involving the public if these trucks do come."
Conoco's loads, which require contracted highway patrol escorts, will be transported on a system of trailers and sophisticated helper dollies by Emmert International. ConocoPhillips said the loads will be 29 feet wide, 26 feet high, 225 feet long and weigh 300 tons.
They'll move at night and use designated turnouts to adhere to a 15-minute maximum traffic delay rule in Idaho and a 10-minute rule in Montana.
The 175-mile haul in Idaho, along a largely winding and scenic stretch of Highway 12 to the top of Lolo Pass, will take four night moves. The Montana route through Missoula and the central part of the state will take another 14 nights.
Ness said his decision was based on the belief that the administrative process was properly followed; that all sides received a fair chance to present their cases; that Merlyn Clark, the independent hearing officer, recommended the permits be issued, and that there were no compelling reasons found in the intervenors' appeal to overturn Clark's recommendation.
"I will not comment further on this case because litigation is possible and the similarities because of the pending request from Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil to transport oversized loads on U.S. 12," Ness said in his statement.
Imperial/Exxon waits in the wings with plans to move 207 massive modules of processing equipment from Lewiston to the oil/tar sands in northeastern Alberta. Thirty-four of the modules are already at the Port of Lewiston.
"We're getting closer to dealing with the real elephant in the room here," Porter said. "The debate over Conoco's four loads is just the tip of the iceberg. The real battle is yet to come."
Ness at first said the first two permits would allow the Conoco shipments to start moving next Monday. But that was amended to Feb. 1, a Tuesday, after it was learned Emmert International needs more time to prepare and mobilize the shipments.
In their statement, the 13 Idaho intervenors fighting against the big rigs said they're "pleased that during the past 10 months the citizens of Idaho have had an opportunity to peel back the hidden layers of state agency decision-making and to learn more about what their state government has been planning for the Clearwater Valley and Highway 12."
"We are saddened," they added, "by the fact that the thousands of Idahoans who oppose the megaloads are having to work so hard to have one of their own state agencies hear them. Citizens' right to question decisions made by state agencies is central to our democratic form of government."
"This is a real minor event in the scheme of things," said Porter, who predicted protracted opposition for "months if not years" by All Against the Haul.
"We are going to stick at this until we know these roads and rivers are not going to be turned into corridors for these massive loads."
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.