Megaloads clear hurdle

Montana gives oil company OK to build 54 pullouts

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Friday, February 11, 2011

The 207 megaloads that ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil wants to send on U.S. Highway 12 in Idaho have cleared a significant hurdle.

The Montana Department of Transportation is issuing a finding of no significance in an environmental assessment the agency required the oil company to complete, said Jim Lynch, director of the agency.

The decision means ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil can construct 54 pullouts in the right of ways of four highways in Montana and apply for permits in the state without additional public involvement, Lynch said. The pullouts are needed to help the loads meet rules about moving over to permit cars to pass.

The development comes as the first megaload of ConocoPhillips is about to enter Lynch’s state. On Thursday at 2:20 a.m. it arrived at a turnout just 38 miles east of the Montana border, having traveled about 30 miles.

As long as weather conditions hold, it will be allowed to leave at 10 p.m. Thursday and head into Montana. A 20 percent chance of snow was predicted by the National Weather Service. The highway has to be clear between the fog lines for the extra-big transport to go.

The half-drum bound for a refinery in Billings, Mont., left Lewiston just after 10 p.m. on Feb. 1 for what was supposed to be a four-day trip across Idaho.

The oversized shipment went to the outskirts of Orofino on its first night of travel, then made it to Kooskia on the second leg of the journey before being halted by weather for almost six days.

ITD then added a fifth day to the Idaho portion of the trip so each segment could be shorter. The half-drum will wait just inside Montana’s border for a second drum-half to arrive from Lewiston before starting a two-week trip to Billings.

ITD hasn’t indicated when that trip might begin. It won’t let the next load leave until it has plans to address two issues that surfaced on the first trip – a 59-minute traffic delay around a curve between Greer and Kooskia and an instance where the load trailer scraped a rock overhang, but avoided structural damage.

ConocoPhillips has two more drum-halves waiting in Lewiston the company would like to haul in late March or April. All four pieces are being used in a rehabilitation project. They were manufactured in Japan and barged to the Port of Lewiston.

ITD has required the shipments, which take up two lanes of traffic, to pull over at least every 15 minutes to allow traffic to pass and go only between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Those same rules would apply if ITD issues any permits for similarly-sized transports of ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil. They would carry modules for a processing plant in the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada. They would use U.S. 12 for the Idaho portion of the trip.

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