A megaload bound for the Alberta tar sands ground to a halt at the Nez Perce Reservation border along U.S. Highway 12 in Idaho early Tuesday morning, stopped by a blockade of Nez Perce tribal members. The protest stalled shipper Omega Morgan for nearly two hours before tribal police took 19 individuals into custody, including eight of the nine members of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.
The Idaho Transportation Department officially issued Omega Morgan's megaload permit Aug. 5, and warned motorists to expect delays starting late that same night. The agency cautioned Omega Morgan that the U.S. Forest Service had jurisdiction to review the permit, an oversight role established in a court ruling earlier this year.
Nez Perce National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell had already voiced frustration with ITD's "ad hoc process" of authorizing megaloads on Highway 12, which crosses his district and the Nez Perce Reservation. Brazell repeatedly asked ITD not to approve Omega Morgan's request until his office had formally consulted with the tribe and completed a full study of potential impacts.
Nez Perce tribal officials took emergency action Aug. 4 in opposing state approval of Omega Morgan's 255-foot, 644,000-pound shipment. In a statement, Tribal Chairman Silas C. Whitman said the tribe was "shocked by Omega Morgan's audacity." Whitman encouraged the Forest Service to assert its authority, "in court if necessary."
"The tribe will not stand idly by and allow Omega Morgan to create false urgency and provoke unnecessary conflict," Whitman said. "Actions beyond mere words may be necessary, in order to have the Nez Perce Tribe's voice heard."
Whitman was among those arrested for blocking the load Aug. 6.
Environmentalists in Idaho quickly called out Omega Morgan for a "lack of respect for the Nez Perce people," as well as for the U.S. Forest Service's authority over megaload permits. Brazell balked at the load's sudden movement.
"While no timelines for review were specified, you surmised that less than one business day would be adequate for our review," Brazell wrote in a letter to Omega Morgan President and CEO John McCalla. He accused the company of promoting a litany of "false impressions" about its exchanges with his office in recent weeks.
Omega Morgan's megaload is expected to reach Lolo Pass by the end of the week. Duane Williams with the Montana Department of Transportation says the company has submitted an application to ship the load through Montana, but has not yet requested a permit. The company has a second load awaiting ITD approval at the Port of Lewiston.