It turns out they can be cut down to fit the Interstate after all: The huge steel modules, destined eventually for use in Alberta's tar sands, that had been barged up the Columbia to Lewiston, Idaho, last fall.
At Lewiston's port, where the modules are now a part of larger environmental controversies, they have sat for months, awaiting shipment to the Alberta tar sands oil fields. In Canada, they are to be used in the process of separating petroleum-bearing bismuth from the sand and gravel with which it's found to make a substance that can be purified further and then refined into liquid petroleum.
Canada's largest oil company, Imperial Oil, which is 70 percent owned by ExxonMobil, wants to ship 207 huge modules through the Northwest to Alberta. The modules are being manufactured in South Korea by Sun Jin Geotec, shipped by freighter to the port of Vancouver, Washington, unloaded, then loaded onto barges, and pushed up the Columbia and Snake rivers (through the — heavily subsidized — lock systems at eight dams) to the port of Lewiston, where they're unloaded again. The plan is to re-load them onto huge trucks for the rest of the journey north.
The largest will be a couple of hundred feet long, a couple of dozen feet wide, and weigh several hundred thousand pounds. They all are — or were — too big to fit through the underpasses along Interstate 90, so the oil company planned to truck them at night up Highway 12 through Lolo Pass into Montana, then through Missoula and along several two-lane highways to Sweetwater on the Canadian border.
The modules would exceed legal load limits on the highway, so they required permits from the Idaho and Montana transportation departments. So, too, did huge replacement coke drums ConocoPhillips wanted trucked to its refinery in Billings, Montana. Presumably, if ConocoPhillips could ship its half-million-ton loads over much the same route, ExxonMobil could do it. Last year, ConocoPhillips got permission from the state of Idaho. Then, opponents got a court injunction to stop the shipments. The company appealed, and the state supreme court, avoiding the underlying issue, ruled 3-2 that basically kicked the decision back to the state transportation department.
The whole thing has hung in limbo ever since. ExxonMobil got tired of waiting. The company has started cutting the modules down to sizes that can slip through underpasses, and trucking them through Montana on Interstate 90. As a Valentine's Day present, the company also got permission to send a single big test load up Highway 12. (The first ConocoPhillips load left Lewiston on February 1.) “On a day that the Idaho Transportation Department issued a permit for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil to transport a test load up U.S. Highway 12 to Montana, the company admitted the ones stranded in Lewiston are being modified to get them to the Kearl project faster,” Kim Briggeman reported in The Missoulian. Briggeman quoted an Imperial/Exxon spokesman as saying, “Because of delays in getting the oversized permits from both Idaho and Montana, Imperial is planning to begin reducing the size of the 33 modules in Lewiston to mitigate further schedule and cost exposure to the construction site."
When the transportation department issued a permit for a test load, it triggered a hearing process that will allow opponents to present evidence and arguments against further shipments. Pius Rolheiser, an Imperial spokesman in Calgary, said Thursday (March 10) that the company remained committed to equipment shipments to Lewiston via barge, then sending the full-size units by truck up Highway 12. But he said, that the permit delays had forced the "difficult and very costly" decision to cut down all of the 33 modules already in Lewiston. None have left Lewiston so far, he said.
The oil company hadn't even hinted that it would be willing to cut down all its modules and take the freeway. In fact, it has hinted otherwise. But its earlier statements that it had no alternative to shipping huge loads up Highway 12 have lost credibility with some observers.
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