Megaloads worry Forest Service officials

Agency tells transportation departments in Idaho and Montana allowing loads may conflict with the Wild and Scenic designations of two rivers

Associated Press

Sunday, January 16, 2011

MISSOULA, Mont. – A U.S. Forest Service official has told transportation departments in Idaho and Montana that allowing oversized shipments of oil-refinery equipment could conflict with the agency’s ability to sustain the purpose of the Wild and Scenic River designations along the route.

Northern Region Forester Leslie Weldon told The Missoulian that the shipments could also harm the agency’s ability to “preserve, protect and manage the cultural and historical values associated with the corridor.”

Weldon said the shipments are of special concern “should frequent transport of significantly oversized loads become the norm for these forest highways.”

ConocoPhillips wants to ship four giant loads containing coke drums from Lewiston to its refinery in Billings, Mont. The company is currently waiting for Idaho Transportation Director Brian Ness to make a decision on whether to issue the permits. It’s unclear when a decision will be announced.

The Missoulian reported that Montana officials are ready to grant permits in that state if Idaho issues permits.

Another oil company, ExxonMobil Corp., is interested in whether ConocoPhillips gets the permits because ExxonMobil wants to use the same northern Idaho route to truck more than 200 gigantic loads of oil equipment from the port city of Lewiston, through Montana, to the tar sands of northern Alberta, Canada. It will also need permits.

The proposed route of the shipments parallels the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and the Lolo Trail National Historic Landmark.

For 100 miles the route tightly borders the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers, both federally designated Wild and Scenic rivers.

Forest Service officials said they became particularly concerned about ConocoPhillips’ travel plan in Idaho concerning its transport contractor, Emmert International. The company wrote that, “To ensure safe public travel during the move, Emmert is authorized to barricade the approved turnouts for exclusive use for the wide loads up to 24 hours in advance for each move.”

Officials said the barricades would cut off access to public land.

“We were a little bit surprised to read that,” said Elayne Murphy, public affairs officer for the Clearwater and Nez Perce forests.

She told the newspaper that the agency contacted the Idaho Transportation Department.

“They are working on alternate language that would ensure that visitors to the national forest have access to the river, the recreation sites and the lands along that Highway 12 corridor,” she said.

Murphy said officials are considering ways for forest visitors to pass through barricaded turnouts to get to a river or camping sites.