Proposed 21-foot-wide load would stop traffic, take more than 12 hours, and modify the road or vegetation on U.S. Highway 12
The U.S. Forest Service is advising the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) to steer a pending megaload away from the wild and scenic river corridor along U.S. Highway 12, until the state and federal agency develop formal protocols to deal with massively oversized rigs.
The state is considering an application from the transportation company Omega Morgan to move a 255-foot-long and 21-foot-wide water purification vessel weighing 644,000 pounds from the Port of Lewiston to the Idaho/Montana state line near Lolo Pass via the scenic byway. The narrow, two-lane highway passes through the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest and travels along the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River and the Lochsa River, which are both part of the National Wild and Scenic River System.
Earlier this year, federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Boise ruled the Forest Service has authority to review the state’s approval of megaload shipments that pass through national forest land and in particular those that would affect wild and scenic river corridors. The agency had argued in court that it lacked such authority.
But the judge didn’t define what a megaload is or say how much authority the agency has over the shipments.
In a letter addressed to ITD Chief Deputy Scott Stokes, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell said the agency will review any load that:
* Requires traffic on the highway to be fully stopped to facilitate passage;
* Can’t make it through the corridor in 12 hours;
* Requires physical modification of the roadway or adjacent vegetation to facilitate passage (Brazell Letter to ITD 6-17-13).
Brazell said the pending Omega Morgan load would trigger all three criteria and affect the experiences of forest visitors and the cultural and intrinsic values of the corridor.
“Until we have a clear understanding of those potential impacts, I cannot support authorization of such oversized loads through the national forest or within the wild and scenic river corridor,” Brazell wrote.
He also said his agency would engage in what could be lengthy consultation with the Nez Perce Tribe over any shipments that meet the criteria. The corridor is within the tribe’s traditional homeland, where its members retain treaty rights.
Brazell wants the state to join with his agency, the Federal Highway Administration, and the tribe in a study that would define “the physical and intrinsic values associated with the Highway 12 corridor that may be affected by oversized loads.”
In a telephone interview with the Tribune, Brazell said such a study would give his agency something on which to base megaload decisions. Since Winmill’s February ruling, the state has been seeking approval for every oversized load that travels through the corridor.
“We want to get to the point of let’s quit worrying about a big combine coming through and get to the stuff everybody was worried about in the first place, the really big stuff.”
A subsidiary of ExxonMobil spawned years of controversy, protests, and lawsuits when its intentions to ship more than 200 massive loads to the Port of Lewiston and truck them to oil sands in Alberta, Canada, became known in 2009. The few loads that made the trip traveled only at night, produced rolling road blocks, and sometimes took weeks to complete the journey. Because of delays associated with the lawsuits, the narrowness of the road, and its difficult winter weather, the company largely abandoned its plans and shipped the loads via other routes.
But the Port of Lewiston continues to advertise itself as a destination for oversized shipments, and a few big loads from other companies have made the trip since ExxonMobil abandoned the route.
In an email to the Tribune, ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten at Boise acknowledged the state has received Brazell’s letter and said agency officials “will be discussing the letter with the Forest Service to review its concerns.”
Brazell said he expects a response as soon as next week and is open to negotiation over the criteria defining megaloads.
“We want to get something going, so we can show (the judge) we are doing our due diligence and trying to look out for the wild and scenic river and the tribe’s interests.”
Stratten did not say if and when the Omega Morgan application might be approved or what the company’s final destination is for the load.
(By Eric Barker, The Lewiston Tribune)