BOISE, Idaho — An Idaho American Indian tribe gets its chance Monday to convince a federal judge to block huge oil-field equipment shipments on a winding mountain highway that cuts across its reservation.
The Nez Perce Tribe and attorneys for a unit of General Electric Co. that's shipping gear north through Idaho to Alberta's tar sands will each get about a half hour in U.S. District Court in Boise to make their case.
The tribe, joined by environmental group Idaho Rivers United, wants Judge B. Lynn Winmill to halt further shipments of gear the groups say will cause irreparable harm to the rights and interests of the Nez Perce people and damage environmental values along U.S. Highway 12. The shipments would wind their way through a federally designated Wild and Scenic River corridor along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers.
Resources Conservation Company International already shipped one of its 225-foot-long, 640,000-pound water evaporator loads along the highway in August, an event marred by protests and arrests of foes.
It has another waiting in the wings at Washington's Port of Wilma, downstream on the Snake River, and says any delays could cost it $3.6 million in damages if it doesn't deliver the water evaporators on time in the Canadian tar sands.
Winmill's Boise courtroom is the latest theater in a three-year battle over whether the two-lane highway is an appropriate route for enormous, industrial-scale "megaloads."
In its lawsuit, the tribe alleges the U.S. Forest Service shirked its responsibility to prevent August's GE shipment through Idaho. It's demanding that no shipments be allowed absent tribal consultation — or the completion of a corridor impacts study scrutinizing how shipments might harm the Nez Perce Tribe's treaty rights.
"This road along the Nez Perce trail is incomparable in its beauty, as well as its cultural value to the Nez Perce people," Tribal Chairman Silas Whitman said in a statement.
The Idaho Transportation Department issued a permit for GE's first shipment of gear in early August. The trucks took several days to get through Idaho, though they were halted several times by rock-throwing protesters, several of whom were arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct.
The U.S. Forest Service, a co-defendant in the tribe's lawsuit, contends the shipments would have only limited impact on the highway.
"First of all, the transport of the megaloads now has only a transitory impact, at most," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Joanne Rodriguez in court filings. "Plaintiffs have not shown that the roadway is being altered to allow passage. There are no 'corridor modifications' ongoing now. Traffic impediments are transitory, and only made worse by protesters."
The Forest Service maintains it's only just begun a study of shipments' impacts to the corridor.
It also requested that the Idaho Transportation Department hold off on issuing permits for shipments, to no avail.
If anything, Rodriguez said, the tribe should be suing ITD and the company transporting GE's gear, not taking the federal government to court.
Omega Morgan, the Oregon-based transport company responsible for the shipments, told The Associated Press Monday it's following the outcome of Winmill's hearing closely.
"There is a load parked at the Port of Wilma but none currently on the road," said Olga Haley, an Omega Morgan spokeswoman.