BOISE - ConocoPhillips painted a picture of years of quiet, painstaking work to plan for the safe transport of four giant mega-loads of oil equipment across a winding, scenic north-central Idaho highway, while highway residents said they never knew what was coming and accused Idaho’s Transportation Department of failing even to check on the company’s claims, let alone involve the public.
A two-day contested-case hearing on Conoco’s proposed mega-loads wrapped up Thursday in Boise, and state hearing officer Merlyn Clark said he’ll take the issue under advisement. He asked attorneys on all sides to submit briefing on several issues to him by Wednesday at noon.
“They want to expedite, and I’m going to do my best to get ‘em an expedited decision,” Clark said.
Asked when he’s likely to rule, Clark said, “I’d like to say at least before Christmas, but just as soon as I can get it done.”
ConocoPhillips has to replace two giant, aging coker drums at its Billings, Mont. refinery, and the replacement drums already have been manufactured in Japan, cut in half to make four giant loads, shipped to the Port of Lewiston, and fitted onto special trailers for the trip across Highway 12. Each load would take up both lanes of the two-lane road, creating a rolling roadblock.
Local residents and business owners sued to block the Idaho Transportation Department’s permits for the loads, saying the department had violated its own regulations in approving them.
Hanging over the Conoco application is ExxonMobil’s pending plan to run 207 mega-loads of oil field equipment over the same route to Montana and then up to Canada for its Alberta oil sands project over the next year. A Korean firm also has contacted the Idaho Transportation Department about dozens more big loads it wants to truck from Lewiston to Canada starting next spring.
More than two dozen of Exxon’s modules already have been shipped to the Port of Lewiston, and Exxon has paid to enlarge turnouts along the route and raise or bury utility lines to allow for loads as tall as a three-story building.
State regulations require ITD to make “public safety and convenience” its primary concern in approving big loads that exceed legal limits. But during the two-day hearing, ITD’s motor vehicle administrator, Alan Frew, testified, “What we do is we try to balance the needs of all the highway users. … For a short period of time, we’re going to have to balance those needs.”
Frew said that’s how ITD justifies barricading turnouts along the route 24 hours in advance of the mega-loads to keep “nuts” from protesting and trying to block the loads; and allowing Conoco to remove two traffic islands in Lewiston to facilitate the loads’ passage even though there was no benefit to the traveling public.
Frew also testified, “The department has broad discretion to interrupt traffic for these kinds of movements.”
Clark said Thursday that he had “some concerns about Mr. Frew’s testimony about balancing, as opposed to primary concern for safety and convenience.” He said his ruling, however, will take into account not just that but the whole record in the case, which he noted is “very extensive.”
More than 100 people packed the hearing at a Boise hotel ballroom all day, both days; about half were Billings refinery employees and contractors, who wore T-shirts supporting the project.
“If the coke drums don’t get there, I’ll be laid off in April,” said Lee Deford, an electrician from Billings. “If they get there, I’ve got a job ‘til June.”
He said, “We don’t have many projects in Billings. … The economic impact is huge. This is a big deal for Billings.”
It’s also a big deal for people who live, work, do business and recreate along the Highway 12 corridor, a national scenic route that follows the path of explorers Lewis and Clark and includes world-class fishing and whitewater rapids, hot springs, historic sites, campgrounds, and a big swath of the Nez Perce Reservation; the tribe opposes the loads.
Linwood Laughy, who’s lived in the area since 1948 and on the river corridor on Highway 12 full-time since 1996, said the first he heard about the proposed mega-loads was in April of 2010, when he was working in his home office and the power went out.
He headed down the road, and encountered an Avista power truck and crew working on the lines. “They told me they were raising all the power lines on the highway because there were some very tall loads that were going to be transported,” Laughy testified at the hearing. “We got a little concerned and started investigating.”
He and his wife, Karen “Borg” Hendrickson, found a federal grant application in which the director of the Port of Lewiston wrote that if one oil company is successful at using the route for its giant oversized loads, many others would follow its lead. “Conoco is first in line,” Laughy said.
Attorneys for the Idaho Transportation Department and for ConocoPhillips said much of the concern about the Conoco loads really is misplaced concern about the Exxon plans, and isn’t relevant to the Conoco decision.
But Laird Lucas, attorney for 13 river canyon residents and business owners who intervened in the case, said, “The department knows full well that a precedent is being set here.”
“Where is the concern for the public?” Lucas asked. “It is not in the record. … To this day there has not been a public meeting on the Conoco loads.”
The residents maintain that turning the route into a high-and-wide corridor for massive industrial equipment will ruin its burgeoning tourism industry, endanger the pristine Lochsa and Clearwater rivers that run directly adjacent to the highway, and threaten the health, safety, and livelihoods of those on the route.
The giant loads, which would travel at night, could block everything from early-morning runs by logging trucks to local residents’ trips out of the river canyon to the emergency room, the opponents argued.