Megaloads face Montana permit process

Some parts of road that winds through narrow canyons present challenges

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Friday, November 12, 2010

The criteria that megaloads will have to meet to cross Montana appear to be tougher than rules Idaho has promised to impose.

The Montana Department of Transportation is waiting for ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil to present plans to establish at least one-way piloted traffic within four hours at any point in their journey if an accident happens involving one of the rigs, said Jim Lynch, director of the agency.

In most areas, doing so wouldn’t be a problem, but some present challenges, such as roads that wind through narrow canyons, Lynch said. “Moving a huge crane probably would not be a solution because of the length of time it would take. … If it meant dismantling the equipment or making the equipment not usable, that might have to be one of their options.”

What each company would need to do will vary, since the four ConocoPhillips megaloads and the 207 ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil megaloads are bound for different destinations. ConocoPhillips cargo is going to a Billings, Mont., refinery, while ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil is sending modules that will be linked to form a processing plant in the Kearl Oil Sands of Alberta, Canada.

The Idaho Transportation Department didn’t specifically respond to an inquiry from the Tribune about whether it plans to establish a similar requirement.

“Idaho’s traffic control plan for an accident is similar to how it handles all accidents on highways,” wrote Jeff Stratten, a spokesman for ITD, in an e-mail. “We will first ensure the safety of those involved in responding and motorists. The accident is evaluated and a plan is executed to restore traffic as soon as it is safe and possible.”

ExxonMobil/Imperial oil has previously indicated a crane would be summoned if one of the loads slid off U.S. Highway 12 into one of the rivers that parallels the highway. The closest crane is in Spokane and could arrive in 10 hours.

The expectation about handling an accident is just one way Montana’s process may be stricter. The megaloads that will consume two lanes of traffic will have to pull over every 10 minutes in Montana so traffic can pass. Idaho is allowing 15 minutes.

That condition is one of the issues cited in an Idaho Supreme Court case involving the four ConocoPhillips megaloads now stranded at the Port of Lewiston.

The opinion the higher court issued in the case resulted in ITD staying permits for the four ConocoPhillips loads, until those behind the litigation can present their arguments for more public involvement at a formal hearing at a date not yet established. ITD has made no decisions involving the ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil cargo.

Montana also requires all of the approximately 1,000 overlegal loads operating in the state each year to go through some kind of environmental review, Lynch said.

Typically the review consists of an applicant for an overlegal load answering a series of questions. In other instances, the answers trigger additional action, Lynch said.

One example is that MDT conducted three public meetings and opened a 30-day comment period partly because ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil had to construct new turnouts to meet the 10-minute rule, Lynch said. The agency then responded to the issues that surfaced in that exchange of ideas, he said.

Idaho has no state environmental laws for overlegal permits, Stratten wrote. “Idaho’s process insures that the permit application meets federal and state requirements and that the loads can be transported safely, without risk to the highways and bridges, with minimal delay to traffic and without disruption to emergency services.”

ITD did conduct three open houses in north central Idaho and accepted public comments, but it’s now not disclosing what it did with that information.

“Public comment was taken on the proposal by ExxonMobil to haul oversize loads on U.S. 12,” Stratten wrote. “The department is analyzing how to best proceed on the ExxonMobil request.”

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