River users planning ahead

From oversize cargo to Clearwater Paper commodities, companies are working to mitigate effect of closure

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Sunday, July 18, 2010
Imperial Oil plans to position about 40 oversized loads of Korean-made processing equipment at the Port of Lewiston before river barging halts between Idaho and Portland in December for 14 to 16 weeks.

Those would be among the first of more than 200 that Imperial Oil wants send across north central Idaho on U.S. Highway 12, consuming two lanes as they travel slowly in the evening.

Idaho Transportation Department officials have said the loads bound for the Kearl Oil Sands Project in Alberta, Canada, would have to pull over every 15 minutes to allow traffic to clear. No permits have yet been issued for the trips.

Imperial Oil’s preparations are just one of the ways river users are readying for the longer-than-normal outage of the cheapest transportation path from north central Idaho to the Pacific Ocean. Typically the system is down for two weeks in the winter, according to the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

The purpose of the extended closure is to do major work on gates at three of the locks at the eight dams that make barge navigation to Lewiston possible. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is trying to limit the inconvenience to shippers by doing the projects all at the same time.

Aside from agricultural producers who move their harvest in bulk, Clearwater Paper historically has been one of the largest beneficiaries of the water route.

Clearwater Paper is looking at trucking the chips and sawdust it normally hauls upstream and unloads at the Port of Wilma just west of Clarkston in Whitman County, said Matt Van Vleet, a spokesman for the wood products company in Spokane.

The chips and sawdust are ingredients in pulp for paperboard or tissue products. It’s also making alternative plans for the very small percentage of pulp and paperboard that still leaves the Port of Lewiston heading to Portland before it’s shipped overseas.

An option Clearwater Paper might use is one where containers would be placed on trains with existing infrastructure at the Port of Lewiston, Van Vleet said. “We’re talking to them about that system and currently assessing it in regards to the transportation needs of the company.”

The Great Northwest Railroad, based in Lewiston, would take the railcars to Burlington Northern lines near the Tri-Cities, which connect with the Port of Portland, Puget Sound ports and other destinations throughout the nation, said David Doeringsfeld, manager of the Port of Lewiston.

The port and rail lines have worked through the logistics of arranging the containers and railcars, but they are still ironing out the rate system and contacts, Doeringsfeld said.

The capacity of the port to load containers onto rail is less than its ability to get containers onto barges, Doeringsfeld said. “I don’t believe during that time we’d be able to handle 100 percent of what our normal volume would be.”

The impact of the lock closure is significantly less than what it would have been 10 years ago, Van Vleet said.

Connections to Japan and other Asian countries from Portland have diminished to the point that it usually makes more sense to truck paperboard to the ports of Seattle or Tacoma, Van Vleet said.

Clearwater Paper wishes those circumstances were different, Van Vleet said. “We would rather be more dependent on (the Port of Lewiston). It would lower our costs.”

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