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LEWISTON, Idaho - With a rumble heard 'round the Pacific Northwest, the first ConocoPhillips megaload pulled out of town late Tuesday night and started its three-week trek to Billings.

Police cars and pilot vehicles, an ambulance, a pull truck, a push truck and half a dozen pickups made up the official convoy, which quickly stretched out to a couple of miles long. The curious, the doubters and the fervently hopeful tagged along in their own rigs into the cold, clear night along the northern bank of Idaho's Clearwater River.

The planned first stop by early morning: a pull-off west of Orofino, less than 40 miles away.

"This is the biggest thing that's happened around here in a long time," said Ken Alexander, a retired carpenter who came down from Moscow earlier in the day to watch the last-minute preparations. "I hope they get through with no problem. You and I both know what's going to happen if something goes wrong with the first load. They're going to say ‘I told you so.' "

"They" are the legion of detractors, those who object to the idea of loads this big going through country this majestic on roads this narrow and winding.

ConocoPhillips and its moving company, Emmert International, say they've been developing this travel plan for three years in order to safely transport two replacement coke drums to the Billings refinery. Each drum was built in halves in Japan, at what Conoco spokesman Bill Stephens said Tuesday was one of just five factories in the world - all of them overseas - capable of fabricating the massive drums that can stand up to the intense heating and cooling regimen.

The first load carrying the bottom half of one drum will take four nights to reach Montana at Lolo Pass, with additional stopovers at Kooskia, Idaho, and an isolated turnout on the Lochsa River between Powell and Lowell. It's been decided the second load, the first drum's top half, will leave the parking area in north Lewiston next Monday night to join the first one on the pass. They'll travel through Montana in tandem, starting roughly on Feb. 10.

Gawkers filed past the four loads on city streets throughout a sparkling sunny Tuesday as Emmert crews made final preparations.

A hoist lifted two workers high up the face of the drum where they hung a white sign with the outline of Montana on it and graphics depicting oil rigs and the like.

"ConocoPhillips, Coke Drum Project," the banner read. "Safe, Reliable Energy & Jobs for the Rocky Mountain Region."

Stephens was interviewed with the big rigs in the backdrop by reporters from TV stations in Billings and Spokane. The Idaho Transportation Department's Adam Rush discussed the logistics of the first night's move and promised a news release early Wednesday morning after the load was parked for the day.

Inspectors from the Idaho State Police and Montana Highway Patrol spent much of Monday taking measurements and eyeballing the entire, eye-popping apparatus - "stem to stern," Stephens said - to certify its compliance with the oversized load laws of both states.

A propane truck arrived to fill a tank on the back of the "pull" semi to control the hydraulic lifts of the 24 axles that distribute the weight of the 300-ton load. The oil drum, secured in place by beams along both sides, had blocks underneath early in the day. By afternoon they were removed.

"Now I've got to go get some sleep," said one hard-hatted worker as he climbed into his pickup.

***

By mandate of the Idaho Transportation Department and Conoco's own transportation plan, the loads can't move before 10 p.m. (Pacific) or after 5:30 a.m. Once they begin traveling through Montana, the window shrinks to midnight to 6 a.m.

The early nights figure to attract plenty of interest. The four Conoco loads are preludes to what another oil giant, ExxonMobil, hopes are a couple of hundred or more shipments of massive modules along a similar route as far as Bonner, then north to Alberta to the Kearl Oil Sands. More than 30 of those modules sat nearby in a Port of Lewiston lot.

Nine opponents held a last-ditch news conference Monday in front of the Idaho Transportation Department office in Lewiston, calling on the agency one more time to stop the shipments because of the potential harm on tourism and the ecosystem along Highway 12. ITD was unmoved, and Rush reiterated the reasons the megaloads are OK with his department.

"It really is a culmination of months of preparation and research and planning," he said. "People have got in touch with us to express their concerns, and I think a very good job has been done sharing information with the public and incorporating their concerns into the transportation plan."

The ambulance has been added to the convoy, the night moves will keep traffic disruptions to a minimum and the rigs will move one at a time through Idaho to minimize the impact to turnouts and the need to barricade the public from them. Conoco has set up a toll free hot line - 1-866-535-0138 - for daily updates of the move.

"I'm confident they can move from Point A to Point B and on into Montana," Rush said.

A monitoring effort spurred by a group called Friends of the Clearwater wants to make sure of that.

They aren't at all sure the loads 29 feet wide and some 220 feet long can make it around tight turns and through narrow stretches that begin within 15 miles of Lewiston and continue all the way to Montana.

Local monitors were set with stopwatches, data sheets and the like to monitor the all-night moves in what spokesman Brett Haverstick called a "peacefully, legally, ethical way."

"We'll make and record observations and collect data that we feel is important to bring to light to the media and for further legal options," he said.

They planned to hold Emmert and Conoco to their word that traffic can be delayed, in most stretches, for only 10 minutes, or 12 to 15 minutes in a dozen specified other places. Monitors from Montana will take over on the fourth leg as the load gets closer to the state line, Haverstick said.

Indeed, he added, one stipulation of the travel plan had already been violated. Turnouts upstream from Lewiston were barricaded with "No Parking" signs by 2 p.m. Monday, eight hours in advance of the 24-hour time frame stipulated. Haverstick said an ITD official called it a miscommunication between the agency and Emmert.

***

Stephens said he doesn't know what to expect from protesters as the loads proceed.

"Certainly we respect the right for people to demonstrate if that's what they feel they need to do, but there's also that side where it needs to be peaceful, and in a way that abides with the law - and we'll have law enforcement out to make sure that happens," he said.

"The other part of that, too, is the time for discussion about this is done. It's time to move our loads to Billings."

Barring unforeseen storms in the next few days, the convoy will roll through cold but snow-free country along the Clearwater River from Lewiston. It won't encounter snow until late on the third night near Lowell, where the Selway and Lochsa rivers converge to form the Middle Fork of the Clearwater.

For the next 80 miles or so, to the top of Lolo Pass, road crews have artistically shaved snowbanks lining the highway to a height, in many cases, of a foot or less. For the top 22 miles on the Idaho side, starting at a pullout and pack bridge leading to Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, a windshield-threatening blanket of black gravel often obscures the yellow center line and white fog lines of Highway 12.

Rush said he didn't know where the gravel came from, but crews were up on the pass Tuesday sweeping it off the roadway.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

 

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