Two mammoth coke drums manufactured in Japan and destined for the ConocoPhillips oil refinery in Billings sit in halves at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, waiting for transport approval from the Idaho and Montana departments of transportation.
The drums will make up four loads that will be four feet wider than the biggest of the roughly 200 "big rigs" that a different oil giant, Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil Canada, wants to move to mining fields in Alberta, Canada, starting in the fall.
If approved, both transport plans will pass through Missoula from Lolo Pass. ConocoPhillips' mover Emmert International has proposed a route that will include Helena, Lewistown and the side streets of Billings, and it would like to start as early as June 7.
Meanwhile, MDT is reviewing the overwhelming number of comments it received from Montanans concerning an environmental assessment of ExxonMobil's Kearl Module Transport Project to Canada. A 30-day comment period closed May 14, two days after a mass e-mailing orchestrated by a Missoula-based environmental group opposing the project jammed the department's computers.
"I know that the highest count we got before somebody locked us up was about 6,500 e-mails," said Dwayne Kailey of MDT.
"We are working with (Exxon) and trying to have everything done by the end of June as far as the environmental document, but that's a tentative scheduled based on what MEPA requires, and it requires that we review and address every single comment," Kailey said.
Because it involves just two convoys of two loads apiece, the ConocoPhillips project to Billings didn't warrant an environmental assessment, Kailey said. But it is subject to Montana Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA, guidelines.
"It was viewed as being a much smaller impact, much smaller issue, just from the standpoint of the number of loads. That was big enough reason to do a smaller document," he said.
The Billings transport project wasn't mentioned at public hearings for the Canada project, Kailey admitted.
"I apologize for that," he said. "It has been talked about, but the magnitude of this compared to Exxon's has been apples and oranges. It hasn't been highlighted or day-lighted nearly as much as Exxon's."
Doral Hoff, district maintenance engineer for the Idaho Department of Transportation, said he'll meet with Emmert officials Tuesday to discuss the logistics on his side of the mountain.
Though the dimensions that Hoff has received from the company have fluctuated, he said the loads will probably be 29 feet wide and 26 1/2 feet high. Those compare with narrower (24 feet) but taller (30 feet) dimensions of the largest of the loads in the Kearl transport project.
Reports of the weight of the oil drums vary from 300,000 to 375,000 pounds, or 600 to 750 tons. The weight will be distributed over multiple axles on trailers that are currently being built in a container yard at the Port of Lewiston, where they were unloaded from a barge on May 17.
Emmert plans to mirror Imperial Oil's proposed course along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers on U.S. Highway 12, entering Montana at Lolo Pass.
Like the Imperial Oil plan, the rigs will require two lanes and frequent turnouts to keep from blocking traffic for longer than 15 minutes in Idaho and 10 minutes in Montana. Kailey said ConocoPhillips won't modify traffic signals on Reserve Street in Missoula, as ExxonMobil plans to do.
"What they're showing us right now - and we're still working with them on it - is basically stopping traffic and actually snaking them through the signals," he said. "They'd kind of go to the right of one signal and go to the left of the next signal and back into their lane."
Instead of installing turnouts at frequent vehicles, ConocoPhillips and Emmert is looking at using existing wide spots in the road to let traffic by, he said. The company plans to temporarily relocate 800 power lines in the state.
Night travel, as is proposed for the Canadian route, is "one of the options we're working with now," Kailey added.
From Missoula, the four Billings-bound rigs would travel on Interstate 90 to Bonner, where they would exit onto a secondary road through Milltown and Piltzville to avoid an overpass at the Bonner interchange. Back on the interstate, they'd exit again at Garrison and continue on Highway 12 over MacDonald Pass and through Helena. Kailey said the route would probably take the loads through Townsend, Martinsdale, Judith Gap, Lewistown, Grass Range, Roundup and into Billings.
The cylindrical drums are the main components of a $50 million upgrade to the Billings refinery. The Billings Gazette reported on May 16 that ConocoPhillips, in a related move, is moving about five people to Billings to focus on production in the Bakken oil field of eastern Montana and North Dakota.
Montana state officials have repeatedly emphasized the proposed permanent alterations on Montana's roadways planned by ExxonMobil don't mean a permanent "high and wide" transport corridor is planned. Critics have vigorously maintained the opposite.
Kailey said the mass volume of comments on the environmental assessment of the Kearl Module Transport Project was unexpected. He said Northern Rockies Rising Tide, which has spearheaded opposition to the project, must have used "some kind of special computer system" to jam the system on the morning of May 12.
"That's fine. It was an education situation for us," he said. "Live and learn. We think we've taken action to where it won't happen again."
Kailey said Rising Tide contacted the transportation department "to let us know they were aware our computers had locked up, and they wanted to know what we were doing about it."
Nick Stocks, spokesman and co-founder of Rising Tide, could not be reached Monday for comment.
A message on MDT's website apologized for the hangup. After the computers were fixed the same morning. anyone whose comment was rejected received notification so they could resubmit. Most of the comments that gummed up the works carried the same message, Kailey said.
As part of the review process, MDT is copying each comment to Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil, which will be responsible for mitigating concerns. The department will ultimately review Exxon's responses to make sure they're appropriate before issuing a transport permit.
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.