Over the River and Through the Woods 

Southern Idaho gets its own eyeful of mega-loads

In order to reach the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, Omega Morgan will ship mega-loads of refinery equipment across more than 470 miles of Idaho roadways.

Jim Powers

In order to reach the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, Omega Morgan will ship mega-loads of refinery equipment across more than 470 miles of Idaho roadways.

After a lawsuit blocked rocket-sized mega-loads from traveling through North-Central Idaho's Wild and Scenic River corridor on U.S. Highway 12 (BW, News, "The Audacity of Mega-Loads," Aug. 7, 2013), and after a difficult passage on Highway 95 through Lewiston and Moscow (BW, Citydesk, "Protesters Greet Latest Mega-Load," Nov. 9, 2013), Oregon-based Omega Morgan has a new plan to get the oversized equipment to Alberta, Canada's tar sands oil project. But the new route nearly triples the number of miles through Idaho--it goes south, and then east, in order to go north.

Three new pieces of water purification equipment arrived at the Port of Umatilla in Oregon via barge earlier this year and, according to Omega Morgan spokeswoman Holly Zander, each piece is 330,000 pounds and almost 100 feet long. It takes three trucks, one to pull and two to push the load. After the equipment is loaded on the trucks, each convoy becomes 900,000 pounds, 380 feet long (longer than a football field), almost 20 feet high and two lanes wide.

But with loads that enormous, many of the region's bridges can't support the weight and most interstate overpasses aren't tall enough. So Omega Morgan sat down with the Idaho Department of Transportation and they came up with a new route altogether.

From Umatilla, the giant rigs are rolling south, past Pendleton,Ore., on I-84, down Highway 395 and west on Highway 26 until they reach Vale, Ore. They continue west on Highway 20, then head south on Oregon Highway 201 past Nyssa.

Once the load hits the Idaho border near Homedale, the plan is to skirt south on Idaho Highway 78, past Bruneau Dunes State Park. It'll meet up with I-84 and backtrack to Mountain Home, then head north on Highway 20. The load will continue along Highways 30 and 28 until it meets up with Highway 93 in Salmon, and crosses over the Montana border at Lost Trail Pass.

The route through Idaho is 476 miles, while the original U.S. 12 route was less than half that distance.

"It's standard for us not to be on a straight line," said Zander. "We have to make sure the road can bear the load, make sure all the turns and bridges are safe. This is something we do every day, but it will burn up a lot more fuel to take this longer route."

As BW was going to press, Omega Morgan still hadn't seen its permit from the Idaho Transportation Department. ITD spokesman Adam Rush told BW that some bridge analysis was still in the works, adding that the permit should be ready by the time the load hits the state line.

Staff members with ITD's bridge division and permitting office sat down with Omega Morgan to plan this route. There was no formal opportunity for public input, but Rush said he takes comments from the public and shares their concerns with the bridge and permit staff.

Rush said ITD's permits are good for five days, but if for some reason the load is unable to travel, the permit can be extended over and over again until the shipment gets to Montana.

But things got off to a bumpy start: The first southbound shipment was delayed two days. This load, like the others, is only permitted to travel from 10 p.m.-5 a.m. in Idaho (8 p.m.-6 a.m. in Oregon), pulling over every 15-20 minutes for traffic. But on Dec. 1, when it tried to leave the Port of Umatilla, protests held it back. Two protesters chained themselves to the load and it took hours to break they away. The load left at 7:53 p.m. on Dec. 2, but didn't move on the night of Dec. 3 because of weather conditions.

The loads will not travel if the road is ice- or snow-covered or if the visibility is less than 500 feet. Zander said operators at the tar sands oil project were "understanding," and their deadline is not tight. She said a best-case scenario would see a mega-load reaching Alberta within 20 days--five days in Oregon, five or six days in Idaho, and the rest in Montana and Canada. She said all three loads should be at the tar sands project by the end of January.

Helen Yost is not excited about this. The community organizer of Wild Idaho Rising Tide, the Moscow-based collective fighting climate change, didn't like the U.S. 12 route; she didn't like the I-90 and I-95 route, and she doesn't like this one, either.

"It's not just about our wild lands, it's about not letting our region throw out the red carpet for these oil companies," Yost said. "We have the technology and the intelligence to do it right, but these oil companies have us by the balls."

Yost got involved in stopping the mega-loads after living in Alaska and seeing the devastation from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

"It was the first time I ever grieved in my life," Yost said. "After seeing something like that happen in the hands of ExxonMobil, then hearing they were heading for Central Idaho and Alberta, I was like, 'No, you've already screwed up one place I love. You're not going to do that to another.'"

Yost encourages Boise residents to protest when the time comes. She hopes to drum up support in the Wood River Valley as well. But she admits it's difficult to get people to turn out in the middle of the night, in the middle of the week, in the middle of winter. She said she thinks part of the reason Omega Morgan picked this route is because it goes through rural, conservative areas where people probably won't care.

The city manager of Vale, Ore., Lynn Findley, said most Vale citizens don't seem to care.

"I guess it's a pretty minor impact," Findley said. "They're coming through at four o'clock in the morning. They'll close off the streets with flaggers, but they've contracted our ambulance to be in front of the progression." That way, if there's a medical emergency in the town, it ensures EMS will be able to reach it without delays.

Findley was concerned at first because he said Omega Morgan hadn't communicated much with him, but after voicing his concerns, he said they started calling him almost every other day. But as far as his citizens are concerned, "Quite frankly, no one seems to give a darn," Findley said.

Trying to guess the exact timetable of a mega-load rolling across the region's thoroughfares, while winter throws snow and ice in its path, is a fool's errand. Add the possibility that protesters may waylay future shipments, and Omega Morgan knows it has a lot more than just a few hundred miles to traverse. But the transport company insists that it isn't interested in politics.

"Omega Morgan is just in the business of moving things from Point A to Point B," Zander told BW. "As long as we get the permits and the roads are safe, we'll keep moving forward."

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