Monday, November 1, 2010

Idaho high court punts on megaloads

Posted on Mon, Nov 1, 2010 at 3:47 PM

The afternoon before Election Day, the Idaho Supreme Court dodged a political hot potato by ruling that the courts can't yet answer the question of whether or not oil company ConocoPhillips can roll four enormous pieces of refinery gear over Highway 12 and Lolo Pass. (And, by extension, whether ExxonMobil can later move 207 outsized loads of mining gear over the same narrow and twisty National Scenic Byway.)

Instead, the court ruled in a 3-2 decision, the question of issuing permits for so-called megaloads needs to be first hashed out in front of the Idaho Transportation Department. Those who have been closely watching the case have seen this ruling coming ... like a giant cargo load, so to speak.

Monday’s ruling vacated an August district court decision to revoke four permits issued by ITD to ConocoPhillips. The permits would've allowed the company to trundle four enormous coke drums over Highway 12 from the Port of Lewiston (where they have been in storage since May) to a refinery in Billings.

Laird Lucas, attorney for Advocates for the West, told The Inlander last month that ConocoPhillips was arguing to the Supreme Court that administrative processes were not fully explored before Advocates for the West went to court in August seeking to stop the permits. The coke drums weight 300 tons and are wide enough to fill both lanes of the two-lane highway that often has no shoulder as it runs along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers — both of which are federally designated wild and scenic rivers.

Monday’s decision, Lucas says, sets the stage for what is known as a “contested case hearing.” The hearing is akin to a trial, where evidence is presented and witnesses can be questioned before an appointed hearing examiner. Depending on how the hearing examiner rules, either party is then free to proceed to court.

“I think this opinion simply clarifies the process the highway department has to go through to issue permits for oversized loads, and the public has a chance to be involved.

Advocates for the West filed suit on behalf of three property owners along the route who were outraged that ITD, the port and the governor’s office were talking about the oversized loads for at least two years while residents were in the dark.

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