Thursday, March 10, 2011

Megaloads run protest gauntlet in Missoula, some may pass through Spokane

Posted on Thu, Mar 10, 2011 at 1:59 PM

The first two ConocoPhillips megaloads eased their way through Missoula early this morning, after taking more than a month to get up and over Lolo Pass from the Port of Lewiston.

According to a story in this morning’s Missoulian, the convoy created quite a scene, attracting hundreds of people to line Reserve Street, even at 3 am. There were two protests along the route and at one point an estimated 100 people stood or sat in the street to impede the move. One man was arrested.

Today, the two loads — each is half of an enormous coke drum — are staged alongside Interstate 90. Tonight they begin the haul east to ConocoPhillips’ refinery in Billings. Montana transportation officials are requiring the units to travel in convoy.

The loads — each was roughly three stories tall, wide enough to take up two lanes of highway, roughly 260 feet long and weighing well over 300 tons apiece — are said to be the largest and heaviest to traverse Idaho highways. The first half of the coke drum left Lewiston Feb 1, was halted by snow for several days at Kooskia and at one point took nearly an hour to saw around a tight corner on the narrow and twisty Highway 12, scraping a rock face in the process.

The second unit left Lewiston Feb. 17, and was also stranded at Kooskia, this time for nine days. Initial plans, said by oil company and ITD executives to have been prepared in excruciating detail, predicted the loads could cross the Panhandle in four moves each. Instead, with weather delays, the moves took 34. They have faced opposition from residents, who contend the federally designated National Scenic Byway will be turned into a “high and wide” industrial corridor. ---

Several other oil companies have expressed interest to the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) to also route megaloads over Highway 12.

Now, the next oil company in line seeking to move enormous cargo loads over Lolo Pass, may be shifting to a Plan B.

ExxonMobil, through its Canadian subsidiary Imperial Oil, has announced plans to move 207 loads of varying sizes across Highway 12. The company rushed 34 units — one test module and 33 of the largest loads — up to the Port of Lewiston in December before the Snake River locks were closed for several months of repair.

The units are bound for a strip-mining project, known as the Kearl Project, in the tar sands of northern Alberta, where heavy bitumen is recovered from the soil and processed into crude oil.

Given the scale of environmental damage at the Kearl site, Imperial’s shipments have drawn more intense protest than ConocoPhillips’.

Environmental groups such as Northern Rockies Rising Tide have been protesting the proposed shipments for nearly a year, Native American activist and former vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke is also at the forefront of opposition, and noted Montana authors David James Duncan and Rick Bass have collaborated on a book — “In the Heart of the Monster” — that outlines reasons the loads should not be allowed.

Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser confirmed for The Inlander reports that the oil company has begun dismantling the megaloads that have been stashed at Port of Lewiston for more than three months.

“We initiated work to reduce the size and weight of the modules currently at Port of Lewiston to such an extent as they can be transported by interstate highways,” Rolheiser says.

And while Imperial Oil continues to pursue its permits for giant loads on Highway 12, “Given the ongoing uncertainty as to how long this might take — and what other unanticipated developments and delays could take place — this was a decision that we decided to make for these particular modules.

“It’s not a action we took lightly or made quickly,” Rolheiser says.

The decision is costly, he says, without providing specific amounts.

The 33 modules at Lewiston, all manufactured in South Korea, range from pipe rack modules to pressure vessels that convert bitumen to oil.

“They were not, strictly speaking, designed to be taken apart,” Rolheiser says. “This is not work we planned to do.”

It has taken eight months for the ConocoPhillips loads to navigate court injunctions, administrative challenges and Lolo Pass. Imperial, it seems, wants another plan.

“We have decided to mitigate the costs and schedule impacts for the Kearl Project,” by cutting the 33 megaloads into 60 smaller ones.

“It’s a complex process. It’s not only exensive, but there is significant or added risk and uncertainty whenever you take a piece of equipment that is manufactured in a certain configuration and you disassemble it,” Rolheiser says.

Rolheiser says cutting the modules down to Interstate-allowable dimensions for oversized loads will take “several weeks to several months.”

In the meantime, he says, “We remain confident in our original plan,” and continue to pursue permits to send megaloads over Highway 12.

Rolheiser would not say how much money Imperial is spending, nor would he say which executives made the decisions.

“That is proprietary information and I will not give you specific names,” he says.

In another twist, it turns out Imperial Oil has about 60 of their proposed loads small enough to be transported as “normal” oversized loads on Interstates and these will come right through Spokane — in fact, about 10 already have, Rolheiser says.

The smaller loads are shipped to the Port of Vancouver, Wash., and instead of being barged inland to Lewiston, drive up I-5 to I-90 and then east.

Alice Fiman, of the Washington State Dept. of Transportation (WSDOT) says the state has been granting a series of month-long permits since December.

The latest permit expired March 7, and has not yet been renewed, she says.

According to details of the permits, WSDOT requires Imperial’s transport company, Mammoet (ma-moot), to traverse Spokane only between 10 pm and 4 am, with three pilot cars and a WSP escort.

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