Officials defend big loads on U.S. 12

Testimony at hearing in Boise will conclude today

By Todd Dvorak of the Associated Press

Thursday, December 9, 2010

BOISE – State highway officials said Wednesday they are confident that four massive loads of refinery equipment can be trucked through a scenic river corridor safely and without causing any major inconvenience.

During a hearing in Boise, Idaho Transportation Department officials also defended their decision to sign off on permits allowing oil company ConocoPhillips to ship the oversize loads from Lewiston to its refinery in Billings, Mont., along U.S. Highway 12.

The four loads would be the biggest and heaviest ever to be trucked along the winding, 175-mile stretch that cuts across north central Idaho, traces the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers and climbs Lolo Pass before dumping into western Montana.

Alan Frew, administrator of ITD’s Motor Vehicle Division, said the agency made public safety and convenience a top priority at every step in its review of the travel plan, from making the trucks roll only at night to reduce interaction with other motorists, to making sure police and emergency medical escorts would accompany the convoys.

“Are these loads 100 percent safe? No, there is nothing 100 percent safe on the highway,” Frew said. “But in determining and providing for the issuance of permits, we did everything … to make sure we were reasonably sure these loads could move safely and with as little inconvenience to the public.”

Frew’s testimony came in the first day of a two-day hearing over permits that have sparked a heated debate over what kind of commercial hauling is appropriate for one of the state’s most scenic stretches of highway.

Idaho Transportation Director Brian Ness scheduled the hearing after determining opponents of the shipments had legal standing to challenge the permits. To preside over the hearing, Ness appointed Boise attorney Merlyn Clark, who will issue a recommendation based on his findings.

ConocoPhillips believes ITD did everything it was supposed to do in reviewing the travel plans and granting permits. Company officials have been frustrated by a series of legal roadblocks that have kept two giant coke drums at the port of Lewiston months longer than expected, costing millions of dollars.

In his opening statement, ConocoPhillips attorney Erik Stidholm accused the critics intervening in the case of running on a campaign of founded on delays and misinformation.

“ITD did what it was supposed to do,” Stidholm said. “What the (opponents) want to do is change the rules of the game.”

Opponents disagree and accuse the agency of ignoring its own rules for permitting oversized loads and essentially giving ConocoPhillips pre-approval for the shipments.

Laird Lucas, a Boise attorney representing 13 foes, many of whom live or own businesses along the highway, questioned Frew and other agency officials on why the company would take such a risk to have the coke drums shipped to the port in Lewiston if there was any doubt about getting the permits. Lucas also pointed to agency documents from 2007 that suggest agency approval for the loads to cross specific bridges.

Frew said that kind of consent is typical for specific components of the review but doesn’t signal the agency’s final decision.

“There was no guarantee,” Frew testified. “There were probably some informal assurances given that the weights (for bridges) looked good based on what we had seen so far. But we were a long way from approving this.”

Lucas also focused on the agency’s review of potential problems and pitfalls for public safety and convenience, specifically the amount of time the convoys could travel before pulling over to let traffic pass.

The permits require the trucks and escort party – including state police troopers, an ambulance and a parts-and-service team – to pull over every 15 minutes to allow traffic to pass. Lucas claims the agency is ignoring its own rules, which require a 10-minute span between pull-overs.

Frew said his reading of the rules gives the agency discretion to ignore the 10-minute provision when a permit application includes a detailed traffic control plan like the one ConocoPhillips submitted.

Reymundo Rodriguez, ITD’s commercial vehicle services chief, also testified he’s not aware of the agency ever denying an oversized-load permit because it failed to meet public safety and convenience standards.

For critics of the shipments, the ConocoPhillips loads are just the beginning.

ExxonMobil Corp. already has delivered more than 30 modules of oil equipment to the port in Lewiston and is also seeking permits to haul more than 200 giant loads along U.S 12 to Alberta, Canada. The loads are projected to weigh 300 tons, stretch 227 feet long, and reach 27 feet high and 29 feet in width.