Mega-loads, many fears

Plan to transport huge equipment on U.S. Highway 12 prompts worries by some who wonder if more shipments are on the way

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Idaho Transportation Department crews were removing tree limbs last week along a section of U.S. Highway 12 just east of Kooskia.

Some wonder if the work is state-funded preparations to turn Highway 12 into a regular route for mega-trucks that block two lanes of traffic, are roughly two-thirds the length of a football field and provide little economic benefit to the region, said Linwood Laughy, who lives near Kooskia along the affected route.

The cargo is being routed by oil companies on a highway, and not interstate, in part because interstate overpasses are too low to provide clearance. The highway trips, originating at the Port of Lewiston, would happen at night and the trucks would pull over every 15 minutes to allow traffic to pass.

A plan by one of the project contractors shows branches near that stretch of road that will need to be cut to permit the cargo to pass, said Laughy, who owns businesses that do historic tours and publish books about the region.

“We’re just trimming trees as a matter of standard maintenance,” said Doral Hoff, district maintenance engineer with ITD in Lewiston.

What help, if any, the state gives the oil companies is only one of the concerns Laughy has. He believes the economic benefits of accommodating the trucks have been exaggerated and the safety risks have been underplayed.

Residents of Orofino, Kamiah and Kooskia could see two rounds of the oversized trucks pass by their communities, perhaps starting this summer, carrying loads for oil companies, although ITD has issued no permits for any of the trips yet.

The first round of trips will be four 375,000-pound, 25-foot diameter drums that were shipped for ConocoPhillips from Japan to the Port of Lewiston, where they arrived May 17. They initially expected to start the next leg of the journey to Billings, Mont., as early as next week, but construction at the Arrow Bridge has prevented that, said Hoff, who declined to estimate what the new date will be.

The second, planned for November, is more than 200 loads of processing equipment for Imperial Oil/Exxon Mobil. The equipment was made in South Korea and is headed for the Kearl Oil Sands Project in Alberta, Canada. The heaviest load would approach 580,000 pounds, counting the hauling equipment, and the lengths would range from 170 to 210 feet. A typical tractor-trailer load weighs about 80,000 pounds and is approximately 90 feet long.

The vast majority of the jobs being created are foreign and the reason is cheap labor, said Borg Hendrickson, Laughy’s wife.

In both instances the equipment is manufactured overseas and hauled by contractors headquartered outside the area and destined for work sites in places other than Idaho. “Exxon Mobil executives are probably toasting Idaho’s stupidity,” Hendrickson said.

Views like Hendrickson’s miss the larger picture, said David Doeringsfeld, manager of the Port of Lewiston. The equipment will move across the continent one way or another. Right now they go through the Panama Canal before being shipped across the center of the country and following an itinerary that, with its higher number of land and sea miles, consumes significantly more fossil fuels, Doeringsfeld said. “You have a huge reduced carbon footprint.”

The reason American companies didn’t get the job of manufacturing the equipment was they didn’t have the same level of expertise as foreign ones, said Pius Rolheiser, a spokesman for Imperial Oil in Calgary, Alberta. “South Korea has the largest and most sophisticated oil and gas module fabrication capabilities in the world.”

The truck drivers and other technicians capable of moving such loads have years of training, he said. “We refuse to compromise on safety and ability to execute the project.”

Rolheiser referred questions about how many people would be on the crews, how many of them, if any, would be local and what local services the crews would use to Mammoet, the contractor doing the moving for Imperial Oil/Exxon Mobil.

Mammoet officials indicated purchases would be made at local gas stations, supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants and hotels. Mammoet didn’t respond to the additional questions.

Any commerce the crews generate could easily be offset by tourism business lost by the deterrence from traffic delays, said Robert Simmons, president of the Kamiah Chamber of Commerce.

If the crews have 12 people and 24 travelers avoid Highway 12 it becomes a negative effect, said Simmons, who owns sanitation companies that serve Orofino and Kamiah and portions of Idaho and Lewis counties.

The best initial indication of how much cash the loads will bring to the area comes from Doeringsfeld. The port received $7,000 for a week of labor it did in preparation for the arrival of the drums. That compares with $2,500 to $8,000 it might make from loading a single container barge, which is the port’s regular line of business.

It also charges as much as $8,000 for the first month of storage for the drums and as much as $4,000 for the second month. The number drops because less room will be needed after equipment for the haul across the panhandle has been fabricated, Doeringsfeld said.

Those figures don’t count what crew members and their wives are spending at stores, restaurants and hotels, Doeringsfeld said. The first technicians came the week before the drums and now number about 30.

Laughy believes the mega-load transports will be happening for a longer time than has been publicized. The maker of Exxon Mobil’s modules told other media organizations they expect more orders from Exxon Mobil, which, by Laughy’s estimates, would be for hundreds more than the 200 modules under discussion.

Exxon Mobil has no plans to use Highway 12 for anything other than the 200 modules, Rolheiser said.

Even if Exxon Mobil has no additional plans for Highway 12, other companies might, Doeringsfeld said. He received a recent inquiry with few details about big steam generators arriving from overseas at the Port of Lewiston, “Local electricians, or something like that, might be installing switches on this equipment.”

In addition to economic development, Laughy and Simmons, a captain of the Kamiah Fire Department, worry about safety. Off-duty Idaho State Police officers will be paid by the oil companies to escort each load so they can be in communication with any emergency personnel who might be blocked.

But Simmons and Laughy think the extra duty could deplete a force that’s already stretched thin.

The ISP has specific rules regarding overtime aimed at preventing officers from getting too fatigued, such as requiring them to be off for at least eight hours before they start a shift and working no more than seven consecutive days, said Lt. Allen Oswald with ISP in Lewiston. “I’m not going to rob from my regular patrol schedule. We’re not going to reduce our manpower.”

Simmons and Laughy also wonder if the oil companies and ITD have really thought through how emergency response happens in rural communities where the responders are volunteers.

How will the caravans recognize civilian vehicles with volunteer paramedics, or firefighters going to a station, or private citizens heading to hospitals with medical emergencies because they decided they could get there faster on their own? Laughy asked.

Such problems could be compounded by a number of variables, including how many oversized trucks are on the road and how well they adhere to the rules, Simmons said.

Exxon Mobil estimates three to five modules will be moving per week and that never more than two a day would go, Rolheiser said.

Since Exxon Mobil will do the Idaho leg of the trip in three segments and each will take a single night, as many as six of the vehicles could be between Lewiston and the Montana border at any given time.

“Is there a fine if they don’t meet the 15-minute rule and is that fine substantial enough to make them want to meet the 15-minute rule?” Simmons asked. “… If the fine is small, they could run this whole thing without ever worrying about meeting the 15-minute rule.”

The penalty for the companies is not getting the needed permit for the next load, said Hoff from ITD.

Representatives of Exxon Mobil have said a travel schedule will be posted on the Internet, but they don’t know how specific it will be. “We want to inconvenience the fewest number of people to the least extent possible,” Rolheiser said.

It’s possible the companies could make the moves happen in a way that satisfies all the communities’ concerns, but given the slim amount of communication so far it’s hard to know what will happen, Simmons said.

Open houses for the Exxon Mobil project planned for this week were postponed indefinitely, but an ITD representative said they would be rescheduled.

“We just feel like we’ve been left out of the loop,” Simmons said.

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