Big Oil Mega-Loads Hit the Road 

Controversial mega-loads roll on U.S. Highway 12

click to enlarge 300 tons and what do you get? Another day older and another delay.

George Prentice

300 tons and what do you get? Another day older and another delay.

Anyone who thinks they know U.S. Highway 12 ought to drive across North Central Idaho at 2 a.m. in February. A scenic wonder that is Dr. Jekyll in the daylight becomes a terrifying Mr. Hyde in pitch darkness: two twisting lanes of pavement enveloped by sheer cliffs and the half-frozen Clearwater and Lochsa rivers.

Anyone who thinks they know what a mega-load looks like ought to see one of the ConocoPhillips coke drums inching along U.S. 12. After being parked for the better part of a year on a vast open lot at the Port of Lewiston, the rigged-up cargo is now rolling thunder, dwarfing everything in its path.

When the first of four Conoco loads left Lewiston on Feb. 1, hundreds of men, women and children braved the sub-freezing cold to line U.S. 12, creating a surreal parade-like atmosphere. Santa would have been hard-pressed to attract such a crowd. But instead of cheers or laughter, the shivering throng remained oddly quiet.

"Honestly, I'm somewhat sympathetic to the Conoco shipments," said John Fisher of Lewiston. "Those four loads need to get to the refinery in Billings, Mont. But for goodness sake, more than 200 from ExxonMobil? And even more after that?"

Exxon wants to send approximately 240 mega-loads across U.S. 12, continuing up to northern Alberta's Kearl Oil Sands Project. Rumors swirled that a third oil company, Harvest Energy, wanted to send even more loads across the same route.

"Yes, I can confirm that," said Adam Rush, spokesman for the Idaho Transportation Department. "ITD has begun preliminary conversations with Harvest about the possibility of more shipments."

Harvest, recently purchased by the Korean national government for nearly $4 billion, wants to send 50 to 60 shipments to the oil sands once Exxon completes its shipments.

"So add it up," said Fisher. "We're probably going to see these things on U.S. 12 for years."

"Maybe even decades," said Linda Scott, another Lewiston resident. "And can we please talk about that road?"

By all accounts, U.S. 12 is a destination byway. Revered by anglers, rafters and Sunday drivers, the views are breathtaking. But that's when there is a view to take your breath. You can't see much more than a few feet in any direction after the sun goes down.

"It's an insane road to drive on at night," said Scott. "I used to teach in Orofino. I had several students die on that highway. I drove that road every day and every night. I know how dangerous it is. The traffic gets frantic even if there's just one slow, small truck."

The 700-page Conoco transportation plan promised that traffic wouldn't be delayed more than 15 minutes--20 minutes tops. But the best-laid plans of one of the world's biggest oil companies sprung a leak two days into the first trip. On Feb. 3, traffic was stopped five times for 29 minutes or more, and once for almost an hour. ITD and Conoco quickly re-crafted the travel plan before a second mega-load was allowed to leave Lewiston.

Bad went to worse when a highly unpredictable challenge blew into town: an arctic blast that forced Conoco to halt its first shipment after traveling only to two of 17 checkpoints.

When winter pulls over to a rest stop giving way to spring, another challenge looms.

"Come March when the river levels come back up, the Clearwater and Lochsa will again become huge destinations," said Kevin Lewis. When Lewis isn't working as conservation program director for Idaho Rivers United, he's kayaking the Lochsa.

"And that's right about the time that ExxonMobil wants to begin rolling their loads," said Lewis. "More than 200 of them. They'll be out there practically every day."

Lewis said the whitewater of the Lochsa is among the best in the nation: "It's pristine, accessible and powerful." As a member of American Whitewater, Lewis said he's heard from kayakers and rafters from all over.

"I'm receiving e-mails from Massachusetts, all of the Southern states, even Australia," said Lewis. "They're all giving me the same message: Protect the Clearwater. Protect the Lochsa."

You can spot kayakers from the kitchen window in the Kooskia hillside home of Linwood Laughy and his wife Borg Hendrickson. For nearly half a century, they've rafted, hiked, fished and hunted through the upper Clearwater valley. Laughy and Hendrickson may easily be the valley's most famous residents. They've authored several best sellers and served as tour guides to over 5,000 guests.

"We provide custom tours for the National Geographic Society," said Laughy.

"But National Geographic doesn't bring guests to industrial corridors," said Hendrickson.

Laughy said their concern for visitors is second only to their grandchildren.

"There are Diego and Isabella," said Laughy. He paused to swallow through the lump in his throat. "Jack and Katie." His eyes welled up. "And 3-year-old Solana." A tear edged down his wrinkles. "I'm sorry. It's emotional for me."

Laughy said the biggest sacrifice he and his wife paid over the last 10 months was time they could have spent with their grandkids. Instead, they logged thousands of hours in a legal battle against ITD and Conoco. Their first stop was Idaho's Second District Court in front of Justice John Bradbury.

Ironically, BW found Bradbury nursing a cup of coffee at a tiny Lewiston cafe on the banks of the Clearwater the morning the first mega-load was scheduled to roll. Bradbury was hesitant to say anything on the record but when pressed, admitted that he had followed the story with interest.

"Of course," said a smiling Bradbury.

Laughy and Hendrickson went before Bradbury in August asking for a sympathetic ear in their mega-load challenge.

"For me, it was never about whether I thought the loads were a good idea or a bad idea," said Bradbury, choosing his words carefully. "That's up to the governor and the Legislature. My sole role was to determine if the Transportation Department had followed its own rules. In my judgment, it had not."

Bradbury slapped a temporary restraining order on the mega-loads, triggering a series of legal arguments before the Idaho Supreme Court and a special case hearing that stretched into December. Ultimately, ITD was given the green light to grant permits to Conoco.

Far from U.S. 12, the mega-loads became a political hot button. Opponents protested on the steps of the statehouse and dumped letters and petitions on Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's desk, asking him to reconsider his support for the shipments. Meanwhile, Boise Republican Sen. Chuck Winder tagged opponents as a "vocal minority supported by outsiders." One of Winder's top political contributors in 2010 was the Idaho Truck Political Action Committee.

Laughy and Hendrickson said they have no political axe to grind. To them it's something much bigger than politics.

"We're looking for some sense of justice," said Laughy. "This just isn't right."

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