BOISE, Idaho - The Idaho Transportation Department issued permits Wednesday allowing oil giant ConocoPhillips to haul four massive, oversized loads of refinery equipment along scenic U.S. Highway 12 in northern Idaho.
The permits carry an important condition: The big rigs can't roll along the curvy roadway until opponents of the shipments have a chance to argue before an administrative judge their right to intervene and challenge the permits.
"There will be no trucks rolling tonight," said Laird Lucas, an attorney for Boise-based Advocates for the West. "This is an important step, and we're pleased that the department has agreed that this case should go through the administrative appeal process. It will allow us to present the facts fully and fairly."
ConocoPhillips wants to haul the loads - four separate sections of two giant coke drums - from the Port of Lewiston through Missoula to its refinery operation in Billings. The Idaho section of the journey is along Highway 12, a two-lane, 175-mile stretch that passes through a federally designated river corridor and parallels the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers.
The plan has irritated a band of environmentalists and residents who live along the highway. In state courts, they have denounced the loads, saying they present a threat to tourism, public safety and convenience and the pristine rivers.
In August, a state judge revoked permits previously issued by the state highway agency, ruling that not enough had been done to ensure public safety.
That decision was then appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court, which in a 3-2 decision vacated the lower court ruling. It didn't rule on the merits of the case, instead concluding it was premature because neither the Idaho Transportation Board nor Transportation Department director Brian Ness had technically issued a final order on whether the shipments could proceed.
That ruling set the stage for the agency issuing permits Wednesday with the caveat allowing for an administrative hearing.
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Ness has appointed Merlyn Clark as the administrative hearing judge. Clark is an attorney with the Boise firm of Hawley Troxell Ennis & Hawley and a senior member of the Idaho Bar Association.
"He commands the respect of all the lawyers in the state," Lucas said of the appointment.
ITD Spokesman Jeff Stratten said no timetable has been set for scheduling the hearing or when a ruling would be issued.
The conditional permits are another setback for the oil company, which had been making preparations at the Lewiston port in hopes of being able to begin hauling this week.
Attorneys for ConocoPhillips have already filed a legal brief with the agency arguing that it's improper to hold a hearing in the case and that its trucks should take to the highway immediately.
The ConocoPhillips shipments represent the first legal tussle over the ability of oil companies to haul giant refinery equipment along the scenic roadway.
ExxonMobil Corp. is proposing to haul more than 200 oversized loads of heavy oil machinery from the port in Lewiston along Highway 12 into western Montana, through Missoula and then north to the tar sands of 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. Trucks would move only at night and pull over in newly designed turnouts during the day.
Montana highway officials have not yet issued permits for either company, saying they would respond after Idaho