December 9, 2010 in Idaho

Mega-load hearing draws crowd

Chance of a spill ‘not even one in a million’
By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – A crowd of more than 100 looked on Wednesday as a hearing in Boise brought out lots of new twists in the tale of the mega-loads of oil equipment proposed to travel along scenic U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho.

The hearing focused on four loads proposed by ConocoPhillips to travel from the Port of Lewiston to its Billings refinery. Looming over the plan is a much larger proposal from ExxonMobil to send 207 mega-loads over the same route and up to Canada over the next year, and another from a Korean firm for dozens more mega-loads starting next spring.

Testimony, arguments and cross-examination will continue today; here’s some of what came out Wednesday:

• Now there are 13: Ten new plaintiffs, who live, work or do business along the route the giant loads would travel, taking up both lanes of the two-lane road, joined the three who filed the original suit to stop the loads.

• Notable loads: Emmert International, the Clackamas, Ore., trucking company hired by ConocoPhillips, has handled some famous big loads: Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” airplane and the Hubble telescope. Attorney Erik Stidham said Conoco “hired the best in the business” to move the loads.

• ‘No guarantee’: ConocoPhillips shipped its loads from Japan to the Port of Lewiston without knowing if it’d get permits to truck them to Billings, testified Alan Frew, Idaho Transportation Department motor vehicles administrator. “There was no guarantee. There were probably some informal assurances given that the weights look good based on what we had seen so far. But we were a long way from approving this.”

• Wary of ‘nuts’: In its proposed permits for the ConocoPhillips loads, ITD calls for barricading turnouts along the twisting, narrow route for 24 hours before loads arrive. Why? Because, Frew said, the agency’s heard that “nuts” plan to protest the shipments and possibly try to block traffic. “But it’s not going to just affect the nuts,” responded attorney Laird Lucas, who represents the loads’ opponents; the barricades will affect “anyone who travels Highway 12.”

• Safe at any speed: Frew testified that he erred when he wrote in ITD’s memorandum of decision that the loads would travel at a maximum speed of 25 mph and an average of 15 mph. Actually, he said, they can go whatever speed they want, and Emmert says they’ll go faster. “I expect them to maintain a safe speed, whatever that is,” Frew said.

• ‘A month or two’: Idaho Transportation Department District 2 maintenance engineer Doral Hoff testified that if one of the loads goes into the river, it could take “up to a month or two months” to get it out, and it’d be difficult and complicated to do. But, he said, “We’re confident it won’t go into the river.”

• Grumbles from crowd: Frew said he thought there was “probably not even one in a million chance that this load will end up in the river,” but acknowledged ITD didn’t look into the chances of an accident. Lucas responded, “We heard from the oil industry that drilling in the Gulf was perfectly safe,” at which point he was suddenly drowned out by loud grumbling from the crowd – including dozens of ConocoPhillips Billings refinery employees – and multiple objections from attorneys for Conoco and ITD. The objections were upheld and Lucas was advised to stick to Highway 12.

• Public comments: ITD public involvement coordinator Adam Rush, under questioning from attorney Natalie Havlina, said ITD received 700 to 800 public comments, plus a petition over the summer opposing the mega-loads with signatures from about 3,000 people. Asked if he’d solicited public comments about the mega-loads proposals, Rush said, “Comments weren’t officially solicited. We received many from folks and responded to them.”


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