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One of ConocoPhillips’ oversized loads sits just off U.S. Highway 12 on Wednesday morning, some 38 miles from its start in Lewiston, Idaho. Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

All was quiet Monday on the big rig front.

ConocoPhillips' second Billings-bound megaload was shut down at Kooskia, Idaho, for the third straight night, and now won't make it to Montana before the weekend at the earliest.

Winter weather in the higher elevations earlier in the month also kept Load 1 parked at Kooskia for five nights before it proceeded on to Montana, where it has now sat these past 10 days a couple of miles east of Lolo Hot Springs.

Meanwhile, neither Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil nor the Idaho Transportation Department gave an indication whether an oversized test module for its shipments to Canada would roll out of the Port of Lewiston on Tuesday, as permitted.

It seemed unlikely.

For one thing, Montana isn't ready. The paved turnouts on U.S. Highway 12 and some of the utility work that the test module is designed to validate have yet to be completed.

Officials at the

Idaho and Montana transportation departments were gone for the Presidents Day holiday and unavailable for comment, but the specter of letting both companies' controversial loads travel U.S. 12 at the same time was implausible, if not a bit surreal.

Laird Lucas, executive director of Advocates of the West in Boise, said the central Idaho businesses and residents he represents won't attempt to secure an injunction to stop the Imperial test module.

"We want to observe it and monitor it and see how it does," Lucas said. "So far the two Conoco shipments have had a lot more problems than projected. They've not met their travel plans, and we think this is just going to be further evidence that these guys cannot live up to the promises they made to the public about traffic delays and so forth."

Lucas said the next step is to ask Brian Ness, director of the Idaho Transportation Department, to reconsider his Valentine's Day decision to permit the first Exxon load.

The decision included an admission that while the loads have already been certified to be as small as they practically can be made, the company was cutting the sizes of 33 modules already at Lewiston "to mitigate further schedule and cost exposure to the construction site."

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According to an environmental assessment recently released by the Montana Department of Transportation, many of the Imperial loads will be 30 feet high. The idea is to make them low enough to pass legally under interstate bridges - 15 feet, 10 inches in Idaho and 16-6 in Montana - and thus avoid the controversial Highway 12 route over Lolo Pass.

"Why is the Idaho Transportation Department issuing permits saying you don't have to reduce them when the applicant is actually reducing them?" wondered Lucas. "It just does not make sense to me."

In his memorandum of decision, Ness explained that Idaho transportation rules require the transporter to certify that the loads have already been reduced to their "practical minimum dimensions." Ness made the distinction between those and "absolute" minimum dimensions.

"Although the loads could be reduced, I have made the determination that it would be impractical to do so," he wrote.

Ness cited a letter his department received on Jan. 27 from Ken Johnson of Exxon/Imperial that said it will cost more than $500,000 per module to reduce the 33 in Lewiston. The process entails "re-engineering the module design, site preparation, additional structural steel and additional man-hours," Johnson wrote.

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Ness considered ITD's historical practice when addressing non-divisible loads, as well as the common definition of "practical," and the Federal Highway Administration definition of a "non-divisible" load. The latter states in part that a load can't be reduced if it takes more than eight man-hours to do so or if it would make the load unusable for its intended purpose.

Lucas, on behalf of 13 court-approved Idaho challengers to the loads on Highway 12, cited recent news reports that roughly 60 of the 207 original loads are being shipped via interstate routes from the Port of Vancouver through Washington, Idaho and Montana.

"For two years Exxon has said they had to take these loads up Highway 12 and they couldn't make them any smaller," said Lucas. "So I find it very questionable that really any of the shipments need to go up Highway 12. That's really the key issue that we want to try to get to the bottom of."

He added that, through public records requests over the past several months, Advocates for the West have found more and more applicants coming to ITD for "similar" oversized permits on Highway 12.

"I think what really is happening here is the trucking industry or Big Oil or somebody does want an established Highway 12 route as this high and wide corridor, so even if Exxon and Imperial use it less than they projected, other people are going to want to use it," Lucas said.

"We really are still fighting about whether Highway 12 will remain a wild and scenic corridor, or if it's going to be an industrial high-and-wide corridor. I think that battle remains alive."

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

 

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