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First oil sands modules arrive in U.S. for shipment up U.S. Highway 12

First oil sands modules arrive in U.S. for shipment up U.S. Highway 12

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The first of 207 giant oil modules bound for the Kearl Oil Sands in Canada are stateside.

Nine modules arrived Sunday night at Washington's Port of Vancouver on the Columbia River via freight ship from South Korea, where they were manufactured. The first was unloaded Monday morning.

Their next stop: Lewiston, Idaho, by barge, despite a battle raging over a similar big-rig transport plan that reached the Idaho Supreme Court on Friday, and widespread dissidence along the proposed trucking route through the mountains of Idaho and western Montana.

"Our intent, as stated all along, is to transport them from the Port of Vancouver to the Port of Lewiston," Pius Rolheiser, spokesman for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil Canada, said Monday. "The timing of that is a bit uncertain at this point, but it's certainly our intent to begin moving them to the Port of Lewiston in the near term."

The nine modules will take a couple of days to unload onto long trailers and moved into storage areas in Vancouver.

"Within the next two weeks they'll start moving upriver on barges," said Theresa Wagner, the port's communications manager.

Wagner said the 207 modules, fabricated for $250 million, will be spread over 15 ship loads. The last isn't slated to arrive until next June.

Beginning Dec. 10, locks at The Dalles and John Day dams on the Columbia will be closed for repair for more than three months.

"We anticipate having four shipments before the lock closure and then the rest after," Wagner said.

Imperial/Exxon plans to start production in the oil sands of northeastern Alberta in late 2012.

Four oversized shipments owned by a different oil company, ConocoPhillips, have been stored at the Port of Lewiston since May. They are the subject of a court case being considered now in Boise by the Idaho Supreme Court after a district court judge rescinded transport permits along U.S. Highway 12.

Their proposed route mirrors those of the Imperial/Exxon loads through Missoula to Bonner, then branches southeastward toward Billings. The Imperial/Exxon route that the newly arrived modules will follow goes up the Blackfoot Valley on U.S. Highway 200, over Rogers Pass and reaches Canada at the Port of Sweetgrass.

In all cases, the loads through Idaho and western Montana will be moved at night. But detractors fear long traffic delays, damage to roads and bridges, impact to cultural resources and to the scenic nature of the winding highway up the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers in Idaho and to Lolo Creek and the Blackfoot River west of the divide in Montana.

They also point to indications the shipments signal the establishment of a high-and-wide corridor on the remote highways of both states.

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The Idaho Supreme Court decision is expected in two to four weeks. The Montana Department of Transportation will wait on the ruling before deciding whether or not to issue its own permits to the Billings-bound ConocoPhillips loads.

MDT has yet to complete an environmental assessment required for the 207 Imperial/Exxon modules. Neither has the Idaho Transportation Department issued permits for those loads. Both states are presumably waiting on the Idaho Supreme Court decision before proceeding with the permitting processes.

Rolheiser wouldn't say if Imperial/Exxon has a Plan B should opponents successfully block the permits in either state.

"At this point, I'd answer that by saying we continue to be confident in the process and in the work we've done with both Montana and Idaho, and we continue to be confident in the process to help identify and mitigate concerns," he said. "Our intent remains to move them along our proposed route."

That insistence is disappointing but no surprise to Linwood Laughy of Kooskia, Idaho, one of the plaintiffs in the Idaho court case.

"With no decision from the Idaho Supreme Court regarding transportation permits and growing resistance to the mega-loads in Idaho and Montana, the arrival of the first giant Imperial Oil modules at the Port of Vancouver underscores Imperial Oil's arrogance," Laughy said in an e-mail to the Missoulian. "As they told an angry audience in Kooskia on June 29th, ‘We have no plan B.' "

Wagner said the Port of Vancouver specializes in handling extra large cargo and has contracted with South Korea's Dong Bang Transport Logistics Co. on other jobs.

"We have two 150 metric ton mobile harbor cranes, the two largest in North America," she said. "This could be some of the largest pieces we've lifted - the modules are in excess of 100 metric tons and could get up to 150 - and so we're using both cranes."

The Imperial/Exxon loads have "slightly unusual" centers of gravity and each is different, Wagner added.

"Each piece has to be carefully rigged and looked at, so it's very labor intensive," she said. "But this is kind of what we target. We're good at this."

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KAMIAH, Idaho – Lewis and Clark traversed part of the route that would one day become U.S. Highway 12 during their 1804-06 Corps of Discovery mission to the Pacific Ocean.

So did the Nez Perce Indians during the tribe’s epic 1877 flight on horseback from the U.S. Army.

Now two of the nation’s largest oil companies want to drive mammoth truckloads of refinery equipment along the narrow ribbon of spectacular mountain road that borders national forests, wild and scenic rivers, historic sites and campgrounds. Local residents are not pleased.

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