First megaload rolls tonight

Eleventh-hour effort fails to halt transport of refinery equipment on Wild and Scenic U.S. 12

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

An 11th-hour news conference against megaloads Monday failed to convince the Idaho Transportation Department to revoke a permit for the first oversized load to leave today.

Nine people gathered outside ITD’s Lewiston office and asked the agency one more time to stop a 650,000-pound megaload from starting its journey at 10 p.m. tonight from Lewiston to Billings, Mont.

The group cited concerns that the megaloads might hurt a bustling tourist trade and damage the fragile ecosystem adjacent to U.S. Highway 12, the road the cargo is using.

ITD didn’t budge. “Given the amount of research, the amount of planning and the amount of preparations, we’re confident the loads can move safely,” said Adam Rush, a spokesman for ITD.

About one mile away, crews were conducting final preparations to ready the first megaload at a vacant lot near the Port of Lewiston office. A convoy that might extend 5 miles long will carry half a Japanese-made drum needed for the rehabilitation of a ConocoPhillips refinery.

It’s scheduled to leave at 10 p.m. today, barring bad weather. It will travel into Wednesday morning to reach the Nez Perce/Clearwater county line.

It will take three more nights to get the load to the Montana border. ITD has limited the travel window to between 10 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., and is typically requiring the load to pull over every 10 minutes for traffic.

The second megaload, also carrying a half a drum, is expected to leave Monday and follow the same route and timetable, in a journey that takes about three weeks to reach Billings.

Two more megaloads with similar refinery components will be transported at the end of March or early April, assuming ITD issues permits for them.

Another 207 megaloads with Korean-made pieces of a processing plant for ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil could follow. Those are bound for the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada. No permits have been issued for them.

Megaload opponents have pledged to monitor the movements of the first megaload. They have recruited 10 people to be alongside the highway for the tonight-Wednesday morning leg of the trip, said Gary MacFarlane, of Friends of the Clearwater.

They will be equipped with stopwatches, charts to record data and video cameras, MacFarlane said. “We’re very skeptical they can do what they said they can do in the prescribed time frame.”

It’s only been recently the public has been able to participate in the process since big oil companies first worked with Idaho Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter and ITD in private, said Kevin Lewis, conservation director of Idaho Rivers United. “We would say to Gov. Otter that it’s time to end the back-room dealmaking that allows the wealthy to evade their tax obligations … and paves the way for big oil to destroy a river corridor that provides so much to so many.”

Otter’s office had no comment Monday.

Opponents also blamed the U.S. Forest Service for failing to assert the authority they believe it has to stop the megaloads.

Rick Brazell, forest supervisor for the Clearwater and Nezperce national forests, disagreed. The forest service owns the land that U.S. 12 is on in part of Idaho, roughly east of Kooskia to the Montana border, Brazell said.

But its legal counsel has indicated the federal agency can’t do anything as long as ITD works within the terms of its easement for the road, Brazell said.

Like the opponents, the forest service has a number of concerns including limitations on access to campgrounds, especially if the more than 200 megaloads set a precedent for even more, Brazell said.

Some of the biggest victims could be the small business owners that make their living from tourism, said Ruth May, owner of Reflections Inn outside Kooskia on U.S. 12.

May was one of those involved in a legal challenge against the ConocoPhillips megaloads that was abandoned last week in favor of focusing on the plans of ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil.

Tourism brings $149 million annually to north central Idaho, and more than half of the customers are Idahoans, she said.

Many of them fish, hunt and hike along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers that parallel U.S. 12, May said. “This is not about local jobs. It’s about corporate profit.”

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