Federal judge hears megaload arguments today from IRU and Nez Perce Tribe

BOISE — Attorneys for Idaho Rivers United and the Nez Perce Tribe urged a federal judge today to stop megaloads from being shipped through one of America’s first Wild and Scenic River corridors.

“The real issue here is that the United States Forest Service should be on our side trying to protect these great rivers,” said IRU Conservation Director Kevin Lewis. “The problem is that they haven’t done anything.”

At the hearing in Federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s courtroom, Forest Service attorneys sat shoulder-to-shoulder with lawyers for General Electric attempting to explain why they couldn't stop impending loads while the agency seeks long-term solutions.

General Electric filed Aug. 26 to intervene as a co-defendant alongside the U.S. Forest Service in the lawsuit filed by IRU and the Nez Perce Tribe. The suit, filed Aug. 8, seeks to protect the Lochsa-Clearwater Wild and Scenic River corridor and Nez Perce homeland from the transport of enormous industrial megaloads bound for the tar sands of northern Alberta.

“This wild river corridor is a national treasure, and its industrialization shouldn’t be allowed,” Lewis said. “There are 80-odd tar sands projects either underway or under review in northern Alberta right now, and they’re all going to need oil processing equipment. These companies, some of the largest in the world, can afford to build their equipment in Canada or find other routes to ship it there.

Since the fall of 2008, the oil industry, their contractors and a specialized group of shipping companies have been working to convert U.S. Highway 12 into an industrial high-and-wide corridor that prioritizes the transport of megaloads over other uses of the highway. And they’ve been doing so in flagrant violation of all applicable legal authorities.

“GE’s intervention shows how desperately the oil industry and their contractors want to convert one of America’s first Wild and Scenic River corridors into an industrial highway,” Lewis said. “They need to know that our rivers are not for sale.”

Though GE cited potential financial losses in its motion to intervene, the company has known its shipments would meet resistance since at least last April, long before it barged megaloads up the lower Snake River and equipped them for transport through the Wild and Scenic corridor. In an April 4 letter, IRU’s attorney, Laird Lucas, relayed to industrial shipper Omega Morgan that use of Highway 12 violated multiple legal authorities and would be strongly opposed.

Still, Omega Morgan shipped two GE-owned loads up the lower Snake River to the port of Wilma, Washington, and on August 5 defied Forest Service regulations and a Nez Perce Tribal resolution when it trucked one load through the reservation and the Wild and Scenic River corridor. During the transport the load was met by significant Tribal and non-Indian protests.

“They set themselves up for this,” Lewis said. “They created this conflict.” 

Filed Aug. 8 during the shipment of GE’s first of nine planned loads, the IRU and Nez Perce Tribe lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop further shipments until the permanent rules and regulations for megaloads are developed by the Forest Service.

The suit claims the U.S. Forest Service’s failure to stop the megaload from entering the Wild and Scenic corridor was “arbitrary, capricious, (and) an abuse of discretion.” It also claims that Tribal rights of consultation— on a government to government level — were violated.

The Clearwater and Lochsa rivers were singled out for designation as Wild and Scenic Rivers because of their scenic, recreational, cultural and historic values.

“These rivers represent the embodiment of what the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was meant to protect,” IRU Executive Director Bill Sedivy said. “They anchor cathedral-like forests. They are recreational Edens for fishermen, campers, hikers, hunters, bicyclists, history buffs and whitewater boaters. And they form the cultural and spiritual roots of the Nez Perce people. Industrialization doesn’t work there.”

The megaloads stand two stories tall, take up two lanes of the mostly two-lane highway and are hundreds of feet long. Their movement through the corridor requires rolling roadblocks, which block access to popular recreation sites, Tribal cultural and historic sites, and destroy the beautiful scenery of the river corridors.

“If GE wins this battle, we can expect hundreds of megaloads annually in the river corridor,” Sedivy said. “That would be like allowing construction of a McDonald’s drive-through along the Middle Fork of the Salmon, or building a three story factory along the shores of Redfish Lake.”