Megaloads favored in 57-page decision

Intervenors look at next steps as ConocoPhillips prepares to transport oil refinery equipment along scenic U.S. 12

By William L. Spence of the Tribune

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Idaho Transportation Department performed its duties in a reasonable and legal manner when analyzing four megaload permit applications for ConocoPhillips, an administrative hearing officer ruled Tuesday.

In a 57-page decision, Boise attorney Merlyn Clark recommended the permits be approved and an appeal by 13 intervenors be denied.

The ruling doesn’t become final until confirmed by ITD Director Brian Ness. ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said there’s no schedule for when Ness will announce his decision. However, Clark gave parties 14 days to petition for reconsideration, plus another seven days (21 total) in which to file briefs objecting to his findings.

Steve Steach, manager of the ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings, Mont., said he was pleased with the ruling.

“He (Clark) clearly recognized that we have a comprehensive and effective plan developed by transportation experts, including ITD officials,” Steach said in a news release. “We will soon put our plan into action, and we look forward to delivering the equipment to Billings safely so we can complete our important refinery maintenance plan.”

Tuesday’s announcement comes four months after ITD originally approved the permits, which would allow ConocoPhillips to transport four coke drum segments from Lewiston to Montana along U.S. Highway 12. The company says the equipment is needed to replace older, deteriorating drums at its Billings refinery.

Borg Hendrickson, who lives adjacent to U.S. 12, said she and the other intervenors are “disappointed and are evaluating our next steps.” She noted the ruling “only affects the four coke drum shipments of ConocoPhillips” and doesn’t apply to the 207 megaload shipments proposed by Imperial Oil.

Clark had nothing positive to offer the intervenors in his ruling, finding “there is no reliable evidence … to support (their) speculative contentions that the tourism industry along U.S. 12 will be damaged by the transport of the four loads; that the scenic beauty of the highway will be damaged; that (their) businesses will suffer lost revenues; that the peaceful enjoyment of (their) homes will be disturbed; that highway users will be prevented from obtaining medical care in an emergency; or that there is any real danger (of the loads falling into the river).”

Mark Hefty, project development manager with Emmert International, the firm handling the four loads, said winter weather conditions may delay the shipments, but they won’t have to wait until next spring.

The weather “is definitely something we need to work around,” Hefty said. “When we run into inclement weather, we need to coordinate with local and state officials to make sure the road is adequately scraped and graveled and clear. It’s a complicating factor, but (traveling in winter) is definitely something we can do.”

In his findings of fact, Clark noted Emmert and its contractors have surveyed U.S. 12 at least 25 times over the last three years, measuring rock outcrops, the road grade, turnouts locations and other key features. Two traffic surveys conducted last March found a maximum of 68 vehicles on the road during the hours of 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., when these loads would be traveling.

“Each transport will include five pilot car escorts, four state police escorts and two sign boards,” Clark wrote. “Emmert and ConocoPhillips have also made arrangements (for) an ambulance and paramedics to travel with the loads,” and they will provide $10 million in insurance coverage to compensate the state or private individuals for any loss associated with these loads.

Each load will take four nights to travel the 173 miles between Lewiston and the Montana border, he said. Those four segments “are between 34.9 and 53.1 miles (in length), and ITD has authorized a 7.5-hour window to complete each segment … The estimated travel time under the approved transportation plan is 122 minutes for Day 1, 122 minutes for Day 2, 140 minutes for Day 3 and 257 minutes for Day 4 – a total of 516 minutes or 8.6 hours.”

The maximum delay allowed for any cars that encounter these loads is 10 minutes, except in 12 specific areas where ITD allowed a 15-minute delay because there aren’t enough turnouts.

Following “three years of careful planning by Emmert and demanding review by ITD,” Clark said, he was confident the 700-page transportation plan developed for these four loads adequately addresses public safety.

“Absent a vehicle collision or a vehicle being driven off the road into the river, or an act of God such as an avalanche,” he said, “there is no realistic possibility that the load will roll or fall off a trailer into the river.”

Spence may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2274.

A copy of the decision can be read at the From the Newsroom blog at“>”>