Special Reports

Rocky Barker: Fight over U.S. 12 shipments tied to salmon, Idaho port

Gov. Butch Otter gives a presentation in June to Chinese wheat officials about his proposal for a Chinese-financed storage facility near Lewiston.
Gov. Butch Otter gives a presentation in June to Chinese wheat officials about his proposal for a Chinese-financed storage facility near Lewiston. Provided by Sheila Zhao, for the Idaho Statesman

The future of Idaho’s wild salmon and the Port of Lewiston s wrapped around the fight over U.S. 12 shipments of over-sized modules.

Fight over U.S. 12 shipments tied to salmon, Idaho port

The battle over the shipment of over-sized loads of refinery and mining equipment on U.S. 12 has appeared to be a fight over a few, isolated shipment campaigns to meet the short-term needs of some oil companies.

The oil companies may see it that way. But the local groups lining up in the debate don’t. The issue, before the Idaho Supreme Court now, is the future of the Port of Lewiston, and perhaps, the four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington and the wild salmon that spawn in the wilds of Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

The opponents, which include most of the region’s environmental groups, notably Idaho Rivers United, are worried about the impacts on the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers and the scenic corridor along the route that Lewis and Clark used through Idaho. But they also worry that these huge specialized shipments could help keep the Port of Lewiston alive as its traditional forest product and farm customers have gone elsewhere.

Gov. Butch Otter has long championed the port, bringing a House hearing to Lewiston when he was in Congress to highlight its value. When he was in China in June, Otter gave a spirited and graphic presentation to Chinese officials urging them to build huge new wheat storage facilities near Lewiston to ensure their own wheat supply.

Otter said a Chinese-financed wheat storage facility in Idaho would allow them to grow more soybeans and other crops, and increase their security against famine, which is a major issue for a country of 1.3 billion people. There is no indication yet the Chinese bought his well-argued pitch.

The port recently got stimulus funding for upgrades that make the larger shipments easier. The federal spending comes as its business, and in fact, the entire shipping industry on the Columbia and Snake rivers, is down, Nicholas Geranios of the Associated Press reported.

Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council revealed that Korean Manufacturer Sung Jin Geotec has said in press releases it has a $1.5 billion, 10-year contract to build the 24 foot-wide, 196- foot-long, 30-foot-tall modules of mining parts that weigh 300,000 pounds. Exxon Mobil denied it had a long-term deal.

But the port’s future also depends on the ability of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to either raise the levees along the rivers around Lewiston or to dredge the rivers to keep them open for full barges. A settlement between the government and salmon advocates put off this decision several years ago, but the issue has not gone away.

Meanwhile, salmon numbers are up because of ideal conditions in the Pacific for salmon productivity and improved migrating conditions through the eight dams. That has reduced the political pressure to remove the dams, especially with Washington’s Patty Murray, the key power on the dam and salmon issue, locked in a tough re-election campaign.

All of these issues frame the overall debate over salmon and dams differently as the ebb and flow of politics, nature and economics shift.

The proposed addition of 40 to 60 module shipments to the tar sand fields of Alberta by another oil company, Harvest Energy, which would increase the number of proposed shipments to as many 271, underscores the demand and pressure for a port that can carry these large loads inland at a competitive price.

So the issues raised in the Idaho Supreme Court over public safety, the potential federal legal cases over Wild and Scenic River protection, the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway and protection of the highway itself, remain primary. But the larger issue of the future of the port and salmon flows through the background like the shipments en route to Lewiston without final approval and like the the millions of dollars that will be lost if the court rules against the shipments.