Caution: Wide Load

Dispatches

For more than 40 years, Linwood Laughy and his wife Borg Hendrickson have lived on Highway 12, two miles from Kooskia, Idaho, the last stop on the two-lane highway before it winds deep into the Clearwater National Forest. As writers and occasional tour guides, they handpicked this remote location along the Clearwater River because of its long history of quiet beauty. Now they fear history is taking an awful turn because of plans to expand an open-pit oil mine nearly a thousand miles away.

photo of an enormous truck with a gargantuan load driving on a small snowy roadCourtesy Rising Tide North America

“The largest corporation in the world wants us to risk access to our public lands and livelihoods,” says Laughy, who has led opposition to a plan by Exxon Mobil to transport 207 massive loads of South Korean-made mining equipment along the highway from the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, to the tar sands of northern Alberta. Each load stands three stories high, extends to 210 feet, and weighs over half a million pounds. Since Laughy uncovered the plan in April, opposition has spread throughout Idaho and Montana and a larger fight is beginning to take shape over the fate of a historic western highway and the scenic views that make it famous.

“What it really boils down to is there’s tremendous passion for this place,” says Laughy, who was born not far from Kooskia. “We have more federal designations than Yellowstone Park.”

US Highway 12 extends from Aberdeen, WA, to Detroit, MI, but is best known for the 200 miles that wind up and over the steep slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains, between Lewiston, ID, and Missoula, MT. This stretch of road is equally celebrated as the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, and the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway. For 89 miles, it also parallels two federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Clearwater and the Lochsa (“rough water” in Nez Perce).

Pius Rolheiser, a Calgary-based spokesman for Exxon, says the company began looking for the most efficient route to transport “over-dimensional” loads through the US in 2007, and began examining Highway 12 because it offered several key attributes. There are no tunnels or underpasses that present obstructions along the route. But more important, the road represents the centerpiece of a plan that would shorten the traditional tar sands supply route – through the Panama Canal to the Gulf of Mexico and overland to Alberta – by some 6,000 miles.

Still, Highway 12 is less than ideal for such large loads. The Exxon modules would exceed the width of this highway by two feet on either side. The company has already spent nearly a million dollars to modify utility lines and highway turnouts in Idaho, the first of nearly 600 power line adjustments and over 80 highway modifications, including 53 new highway turnouts that will be needed along the route. Despite these changes, the company assures local residents that the loads will not alter the character of this unique natural corridor. “Our fondest wish is that this would be nothing but a curiosity for people who want to catch a glimpse of these modules,” Rohlheiser says.

But that wish has not come true. After first hearing about Exxon’s plan, Montana’s transportation director, Jim Lynch, described the proposal as a “permanent high and wide corridor” and warned a state legislative transportation committee that the unprecedented size of these loads would create “a firestorm” in communities along the route.

Lynch was right. Shortly after discovering the plan, Laughy and Hendrickson set up a website called “Fighting Goliath.” The site flourished, and by August a regional coalition called All Against the Haul had emerged to coordinate a fight. Several lawsuits have been filed in Idaho to prevent the state transportation department from allowing the loads, and further lawsuits are expected in Montana.

For now, Exxon must wait and watch as its plan grows increasingly unpopular. A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) claims Exxon has committed to a $1.5 billion, 10-year deal with Korean mining equipment manufacturer Sun Jin Geotec that could lead to “thousands of oversized shipments” along Highway 12.

“I grew up in Montana, so I take this personally,” says Bobby McEnaney, a Public Lands Analyst for NRDC based in Washington, DC. “But it doesn’t matter where you’re at. This project is big enough that it will be in everyone’s backyard eventually.”

Local resistance continues to swell around this expectation. During an autumn house party in Missoula organized by All Against the Haul, author and activist David James Duncan detailed the diverse voices of those involved in the network. With a shaking voice, Duncan enumerated more than 40 organizations, spanning four states, all committed to what he called “the last chance for truth telling.”

“The heavy haul route through Idaho and Montana forces us all to serve a deadly tar sands monstrosity,” says Duncan, who lives along the route. “We have a chance to cut off one of the monster’s tentacles. If we succeed, I believe we’ll inspire others.”

—Gabriel Furshong

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