BOISE, Idaho — Idaho Transportation Director Brian Ness has agreed to issue travel permits that would allow ConocoPhillips to begin hauling large oil refinery machinery along a winding and scenic stretch of U.S. Highway 12 as early as next week.
Ness said Tuesday he is convinced ConocoPhillips and its contracted shipper can safely haul the four separate loads from the port in Lewiston along a 172 mile stretch in northcentral Idaho en route to the company's refinery in Billings, Mont.
His decision follows months of challenges that played out in state courts and administrative hearings over the agency's initial decision to permit the oversized loads and approval of the travel plan.
"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," Ness said in a statement. "Every argument has been heard and considered. We can no longer delay this process."
Ness said two permits would be issued by the agency Tuesday that would enable the company to begin hauling two of the four shipments starting Monday, weather conditions allowing.
But foes of the shipments may also have a say in whether the heavy loads hit the road next week.
A group of 13 residents who either live or own businesses along the roadway have threatened to take their case back to court if the agency again signed off on the permits.
They contend that giant trucks chugging slowly along a mountainous, two-lane roadway at night pose a threat to public safety and convenience.
They have also framed their fight against the four ConocoPhillips loads as critical to a bigger battle looming over a potential increase in the heavy commercial trucking industry in a regions of the state increasingly dependent on tourists who come to camp, raft, hike and fish the protected Lochsa and Clearwater rivers that parallel the highway.
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Any permit or travel plan approved for ConocoPhillips sets a bad precedent, they claim, for an agency now studying requests to move even bigger loads along the highway from other companies.
Later this year, ExxonMobil hopes to begin shipping the first of more than 200 oversized loads along the byway, into Montana, then north to the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. ExxonMobil has already delivered more than a dozen massive modules of refinery machinery to the port in Lewiston.
Laird Lucas, the Boise attorney representing the 13 opponents, said he intended to meet with his clients Wednesday before deciding how to respond.
Approval of the permits is a relief for ConocoPhillips and its Montana refinery, which produces 7 percent of the gasoline and diesel fuel distributed in Idaho. The company had hoped to have the giant drums in Billings for a spring shutdown, and company executives warned that any additional delays could lead to layoffs and production declines.
"We're very pleased that the director of ITD issued the final order," said John Roper, the company's spokesman. "ConocoPhillips will proceed with its plans in accordance with the permits and we will provide updates on the status of the shipments as they proceed."
Ness' decision Tuesday mirrors the findings of a hearing officer appointed in December to consider the opponents challenge to the permits.
After two days of testimony, hearing officer Merlyn Clark issued a 57-page recommendation in favor of the permits. Clark concluded the loads could make it safely and with a minimum inconvenience to the public, and that the foes offered no solid evidence the shipments would harm tourism or deflate the highway's scenic values.
"I will not comment further on this case because litigation is possible and the similarities because of the pending request from ExxonMobil," Ness said.