First big load hits U.S. 12

Hundreds gather to watch as 29-foot-wide megaload bound for Montana sets out on first leg of four-day journey

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A pull truck honked just before the first megaload of ConocoPhillips edged out of a vacant lot at the Port of Lewiston at 10:07 p.m. Tuesday.
No protesters appeared to be on the scene as it left. Hundreds of onlookers were waiting on Frontage Road where the oversized load crossed U.S. Highway 12 at about 11 p.m.
Among them were Kylee Stamper of Lewiston, who came because her grandmother wanted to watch it.

She had her hand wrapped around a cup of coffee as she stood with her boyfriend near a line of at least five photographers.

“It’s taking forever and it’s cold,” Stamper said.” It’s kind of exciting to watch. … I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Spectating took patience. Often the load was traveling so slowly it didn’t appear to be moving. “We’ve heard (flaggers) say five minutes, 10 minutes, but that five minutes has turned into 20 minutes,” Stamper said.

About one hour into the journey, everything seemed to be going smoothly.
The oversized load was carrying half a drum bound for a ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings, Mont. The cargo, along with the two trucks and trailer hauling it, weigh about 300 tons, making it the largest vehicle to ever take to U.S. 12. At 29 feet wide, it took up two lanes of traffic.

A convoy with pilot cars, flaggers, spare drivers, Idaho State Police troopers, at least one paramedic and a portable toilet accompanied the load.

The Arrow Bridge, the longest span on the route, still lay ahead. That’s one place where extra wheels will be added to the 96 wheels normally distributing the load’s weight to a ratio the same as what regular tractor-trailers exert on the road.

The load will be lifted with jacks that are a part of the transport vehicle, so the additional wheels can be slipped underneath. Then the extra wheels will be removed after the loads get across the bridge.

The oversized load was to be off the road by 5:30 a.m. today, the time limit given by the Idaho Transportation Department for it to travel.

The departure follows months of wrangling between supporters and opponents. Supporters believe allowing the loads to use U.S. 12 is an important part of commerce.

“The time for discussion about this is done,” said Bill Stephens, a spokesman for ConocoPhillips. “It’s time to move our loads.”

Tuesday’s load is the first of four going to Billings. Each will carry half a drum for a rehabilitation project that will employ 1,700 at a refinery where 400 people work helping supply Idaho with gasoline. The drums are replacing ones 20 years old, Stephens said.
The drums are heated daily to about 900 degrees to apply heat and pressure that converts crude oil into products such as gasoline and diesel, Stephens said.

The Japanese plant where the drums were made is one of only five in the world, all overseas, with the capability to make what ConocoPhillips needed, Stephens said.
The drums were hauled 5,200 miles by ocean freighter and another 300 miles by river barge to the Port of Lewiston, where they were unloaded in May. The land portion of the journey will cover 700 miles and take three weeks.

Four days and about 175 miles of that trip is in Idaho between Lewiston and the Montana border. The first load will wait at the Montana border for the second one, which is scheduled to leave Lewiston Monday. They will convoy to Billings. Then the transport equipment will be returned to Lewiston and the second set of megaloads will move at the end of March or in early April.

Numerous precautions have been taken to avoid anything going wrong, Stephens said.
ConocoPhillips hired Emmert International, a company for the transport, that’s never lost a load. The 30 people traveling with the load have more than one way to communicate with one another and can suspend the project if they notice anything wrong, Stephens said. “They know there are a lot of eyes on this project. They know safety is No. 1.”

One of the key things they watch for is precipitation sticking to the road, which has to be clear between the fog lines for the load to progress, Stephens said.
Earlier on Tuesday, arrangements were made for gravel on U.S. 12 on one of the eastern legs of the trip in Idaho to be cleared, Stephens said.

One of five pilot cars has a stick 28 and a half feet long, 6 inches taller than the megaload. The stick helps resolve last-minute questions about if the load has enough clearance, Stephens said.

In spite of all the planning, opponents worry about what will happen to the highway and the scenic rivers it parallels. Some waged a legal battle starting last summer against ConocoPhillips that succeeded in preventing the loads from moving until now.

Last week that fight was abandoned in favor of focusing on 207 similar-sized loads ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil wants to move to the Kearl Oil Sands, in Alberta, Canada, on U.S. 12. They are components of a processing plant.

Opponents wonder how closely requirement ITD imposes might be followed. On Tuesday, even before the first load left, ITD acknowledged one provision of the permit wasn’t met after it was brought to the agency’s attention by Friends of the Clearwater.
Waist-high orange barrels with no-parking signs were in three or four pullouts between the Arrow Bridge and Pink House campground near Orofino by 2:30 p.m. Monday, said Brett Haverstick, a spokesman for Friends of the Clearwater.

At least six barrels tied together with flags or rope were in front of another pullout near Pink House campground, Haverstick said.
Such barricading wasn’t supposed to occur until 10 p.m. Monday, 24 hours before the load was scheduled to leave, said Adam Rush of ITD.
There was a miscommunication between Emmert International and a subcontractor doing the barricading, Rush said.

The issue has been resolved and shouldn’t reoccur, he added. Emmert International didn’t return a call late Tuesday afternoon requesting comment.

“What is very alarming about this discovery is the permits have been violated before the megaloads hit the highway,” Haverstick said. “We hope, along with the public, this is not symbolic of more violations to come.”

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.