Late in the summer of 2010, word began to spread that Exxon/Mobil had a plan to send Statue of Liberty-sized loads of oil extraction equipment up the Columbia River and along designated wild and scenic roads to Canada for toxic tar sands mining. After a long fight, the oil companies have called off the heavy haul.
Eugene-based Western Environmental Law Center gave legal support to the advocacy group All Against the Haul, one of many organizations opposed to the transport of oversized modules from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho to the tar sands in Canada. On June 20th, those in opposition were grateful to hear that Imperial Oil — the would be transporters and subsidiary of Exxon/Mobil — had withdrawn a permit to use U.S. Route Highway 12, which winds through northern Idaho and Montana.
Highway 12 has been the point of contention and ultimately a road to success in the struggle. The winding road is a Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, and among many concerns, the envisioned route for the equipment might have threatened the region’s environment, tourism dollars and access to emergency care, according to Linwood Laughy, a member of the group The Rural People of Highway 12. “We’re grateful for all the efforts people put out to stop this,” he says.
Court cases in Idaho kept the equipment at the docks for a year, he says. But Laughy believes that it was ultimately Montana Judge Ray Dayton’s decision to have the Montana Department of Transportation do a more extensive environmental analysis of the proposed route that made Imperial Oil change their mind. Exxon/Mobil initially did its own analysis of the potential dangers and said that impacts would be minimal. EW found the proposed “finding of no significant impact” in August 2010, months before MDT had intended to release it.
“The judge determined it was inadequate and that Montana Department of Transportation had a responsibility to take a ‘hard look,’” Laughy says, “because of the cumulative impacts.”
Fifty-two brand new turnouts would have been created for the trucks — some carrying more than 500,000 pounds — to pull off the road if necessary. The environmental impact of those turnouts was of concern because of their proximity to salmon-bearing rivers. “This is a wild and scenic river corridor,” Laughy says about the region. “These loads would be going right on the brink of the road that drops right into the river.”
After being wrapped up in legality and state courts, perhaps the fight didn’t seem worth it for Exxon/Mobil. According to Laughy the modules are now being adjusted so that they can be transported on interstates and pass through underpasses.
“They had always argued that Highway 12 was the only possible route and that these loads could not be reduced,” he says. “But they ended up reducing the loads and taking an alternate route.”