Environmental groups, the Nez Perce Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service said Friday that they have reached a settlement in a lawsuit over huge “megaload” shipments on a scenic northwestern Idaho highway by tractor trailers.
The shipments had been on hold since 2013 along a 100-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 12 between Lewiston, Idaho and the Montana border.
The settlement means oversized loads, such as logs and farm equipment, that have traditionally traveled Highway 12 can continue but that future megaloads of other products including some oil refinery equipment will be banned.
Megaloads became controversial about six years ago when energy companies ConocoPhillips Corp. and ExxonMobil Corp. obtained permits to transport massive pieces of oil refinery equipment to the Canada’s tar sands crude oil fields. The loads sometimes blocked both lanes of traffic, and critics raised several concerns about environmental impact and residential access.
Only a few of the shipments actually traveled on the road, but some companies had hoped to send as many as 100 big loads on the route.
The highway runs through the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest and along the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River and its tributary, the Lochsa River. Both rivers are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.
The Nez Perce Tribe, Idaho Rivers United and the legal group Advocates for the West sued the U.S. Forest Service in 2013, saying the federal agency had a duty to regulate the giant shipments. In response, a federal judge ordered a halt to the megaloads while the lawsuit worked its way through the courts.
Meanwhile, declining oil prices reduced demand from companies seeking to use the highway for megaloads.
“After years of dispute, we are glad to put this saga behind us,” said Laird Lucas, executive director of the Advocates for the West group in a statement. “I take heart in knowing that this jewel of the West will remain a treasured and protected landscape.”
A recent study revealed that many people do not want Highway 12 to become an “industrial corridor” for the shipments, Leanne Marten, regional forester for the Forest Service, said in a letter send to the Idaho Transportation Department on Thursday.
The settlement is a reasonable compromise, she said.
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