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Idaho environmentalists, feds spar over mega-loads

John Miller, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- A judge said he'll issue a decision by Friday in a case brought by environmentalists who say the federal government failed to protect the scenic characteristics of a northern Idaho highway used to transport "mega-loads" of oil equipment from Canada.

Idaho Rivers United argues the U.S. Forest Service neglected its duty to intervene, including by allowing 500 trees along U.S. Highway 12 to be trimmed to accommodate oil-gear shipments by ExxonMobil weighing up to 300 tons. The federal agency says it relinquished that authority over the shipments between Lewiston and the Kearl Oil Sands projects in southern Alberta to the state of Idaho.

During an hourlong court hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill pressed Forest Service attorney Joanne Rodriguez to explain why the agency — as owner of the land where U.S. 12 is located — can't enforce provisions of a 1995 federal easement granted to Idaho requiring the state to protect the highway's "scenic and aesthetic" values along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers. The corridor is protected by the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

"The easements themselves contain that restriction, do they not — the requirement that those scenic values be preserved?" Winmill asked Rodriguez, suggesting it was within the Forest Service's authority to enforce the 18-year-old easement's restrictions.

Two years ago, ExxonMobil's Canadian unit aimed to ship hundreds of so-called mega-loads from Idaho's Port of Lewiston along U.S. Highway 12, then up through Montana to the northern border. But the proposed route was met with fierce opposition from residents, environmental groups and some local governments.

While Conoco Phillips did ship four enormous coke drums along the route to its refinery near Billings, Mont., ExxonMobil eventually diverted most of its planned shipments to less-contentious routes, including U.S. Highway 95 and U.S. Interstate 90.

Rodriguez told Winmill that Idaho Rivers United's complaint should be thrown out, in large part because the last of the oversized loads the Forest Service contends are subject to the group's lawsuit were completed in 2011.

Though the Idaho Transportation Department does continue to issue permits for new large loads on U.S. 12 — including a pair of 20-foot-high, 255,000-pound evaporator vessels in late January — Rodriguez said those shouldn't have a bearing on this case. She urged Winmill to ignore Jan. 31 photos of the big vessels parked along the highway to wait out bad weather, presented in court by attorneys for Idaho Rivers United as evidence that mega-loads continue.

"I've never seen that before," Rodriguez said of the photos. "I've never heard of them."

As early as September 2010, Forest Service leaders in Idaho expressed concern about the ExxonMobil shipments. That month, Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest supervisor Rick Brazell told the Idaho Transportation Department in a letter that hundreds of oversized loads jeopardize "the experience the traveling and recreating public will have along U.S. Highway 12 through the introduction of overtly industrial elements into the otherwise pastoral environment."

In the same letter, however, Brazell conceded he was powerless to interfere. "I recognize that I have no jurisdiction to stop these shipments, but I do oppose the idea of allowing this precedent to be set," he wrote.

Laird Lucas, Idaho Rivers United's attorney, argued Brazell got it wrong: The Forest Service can intervene, even if its lawyers say the agency can't.

"They need the green light from the court," Lucas urged Winmill.