What was intended as a "no problem" jaunt over Lolo Pass with a train of diesel trucks and weight-spreading dollies hitched to an enormous steel cylinder has instead turned into something as epic as Hannibal crossing the Alps.
The Journey of the Megaload (half of a coke drum headed for assembly at a ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings) was supposed to be out of Idaho days ago. Instead, a winter storm and unexpected trouble maneuvering the giant rig (it's the better part of a football field long, three stories high, weighs more than 300 tons and takes up both lanes) around tight corners on U.S. Highway 12 has created nearly a week of delays.
The giant drum has been parked outside of the little mountain town of Kooskia, where one resident told the Lewiston Tribune, "The megaload is our Disneyland castle. Everybody has a picture of their kids in front of the megaload."
The load has been stranded at Kooskia partly by weather, but also by some furious recalculation. Last week's second leg of the announced four-day journey over Lolo Pass was something of a disaster for ConocoPhillips, its hauler Emmert International and the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD).
All three entities had assured residents the route had been thoroughly prepped, and pointed to a 700-page transportation plan as proof that all the wrinkles had been ironed out. On that fateful, 35-mile second leg from Orofino to Kooskia, ITD marked down 10 occasions where the load blocked traffic for longer than the allowed 15 minutes. Some were merely a minute over, but one delay lasted for just shy of an hour, where the load had trouble sawing past a tight corner, and were it's transport cradle scraped along a sheer rock wall. ---
ITD quickly ordered Emmert to revise its transport plan before the second of the four loads (each is a half of a coke drum) can leave the Port of Lewiston. The first load was supposed to be bombing across Montana by now and the second would be nearing the top of Lolo Pass (elev. 5,233 feet).
Instead, the first megaload will climb the pass in shorter segments, says ITD's District 2 maintenance engineer Doral Hoff at Lewiston. The next stage, should the load move tonight, is only 32 miles to milepost 106 (that's six miles east of Lowell, Hoff says) instead of the originally planned 52 miles.
This stretch also features plenty of twisty road as the highway winds along the Lochsa River.
Lynwood Laughy, who lives along Highway 12 and who raised early objections to the megaload transports (www.fightinggoliath.org), was out watchdogging last week. He drove past the load from each direction to monitor delay times. He has long been curious on how commercial truck traffic would be affected. Logging trucks began to appear on the highway as early as 3 am, he says, and at one point he counted eight of them stacked up behind the megaload.
Laughy also discovered he himself was being closely monitored by Idaho State Police.
On a related note, Idaho state Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, is drafting legislation that would require public hearings for megaload permits, allow ITD to recoup all costs for the process and to create a committee to review ITD guidelines on megaloads.
Despite the mind-bending size of its megaloads, ConocoPhillips has a small role in this drama with four shipments. But other oil companies are lining up right behind. ExxonMobil already has the first 34 of a proposed 207 megaloads stashed at Port of Lewiston well in advance of any permits being issued. And a Korean oil company has been in talks with ITD about another 60.
Residents have objected to a permit process that was opaque and even subterranean. It has been revealed ExxonMobil's been in talks with ITD, the Port of Lewiston and other agencies for about two years before people living along the highway found out, by happenstance, last spring.
The main objection is that oil companies are using the route as a cheaper alternative than shipping the steel vessels (fabricated in Japan and South Korea) around to the Gulf Coast or through the Great Lakes. They say the state comes out on the losing end if Highway 12, a National Scenic Byway in Idaho, where it runs along portions of two wild and scenic rivers, becomes an industrial corridor for outsized "high and wide" cargo loads.