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The Associated Press June 27, 2011, 7:53PM ET

Hearing judge finds no reason to stop Exxon loads

A state hearing officer is recommending that the Idaho Transportation Department issue permits that would allow Exxon Mobil to truck massive shipments of oil refinery equipment along U.S. Highway 12 in north central Idaho.

The findings of hearing officer Duff McKee released Monday mark another victory for oil companies over a coalition of residents and business owners who oppose using the scenic byway as a shipping corridor for oversized loads.

In his 63-page decision, McKee, a retired state judge, determined that none of the arguments opponents offered during a two-week hearing in April warranted denial of the permits Exxon Mobil Corp. needs to ship modules from the port in Lewiston and through Montana to the oil sands in southern Alberta, Canada.

"I conclude that there is no basis under the law or regulations of ITD that would justify denial or revocation of the overlegal permit in this case," McKee wrote.

The company initially projected transporting more than 200 shipments on the scenic roadway, generally along the route of the historic Lewis and Clark expedition.

But in recent months, Exxon Mobil has spent millions of dollars to reduce the size of more than a dozen of the modules delivered to the port last year. Earlier this month, state highway officials approved permits to truck the smaller loads north along Highway 95 through Moscow to Interstate 94.

The bigger, oversized shipments are 29 feet wide, 28 feet high and 226 feet in length -- some of the biggest, heaviest shipments ever approved for Idaho highways. When rolling, the trucks will occupy both lanes of the highway and travel only at night, with 15-minute stops at pullouts to alleviate public safety and convenience issues.

But opponents claim the highway, which parallels the federally protected Lochsa and Clearwater rivers, is not appropriate for such large-scale shipments.

Last year, they unsuccessfully challenged in court and in administrative appeal the state's decision to approve ConocoPhillips' request to ship four overlegal loads of refinery equipment along the highway to Billings, Mont. The first of the 300-ton ConocoPhillips shipments needed 65 days to complete a journey delayed by weather and mechanical malfunctions.

In both cases, foes claimed the convoys would threaten public safety, the environment and businesses that rely on tourists who flock to the region for its environmental beauty, fishing, hiking and rafting.

Opponents have 14 days to file an appeal before ITD Director Brian Ness decides whether to approve Exxon Mobil's permits.

Laird Lucas, the Boise attorney for the opponents, did not immediately return messages left by The Associated Press.

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