Monday, August 18, 2014

Chasing a Mega-Load in North Idaho

Posted By on Mon, Aug 18, 2014 at 9:33 AM

click to enlarge A mega-load of oil refinery equipment enters Sandpoint on its way to Great Falls, Mont. - CAMERON RASMUSSON
  • Cameron Rasmusson
  • A mega-load of oil refinery equipment enters Sandpoint on its way to Great Falls, Mont.

It was just past 2 a.m., Aug. 15, and members of environmental group Wild Idaho Rising Tide were crawling down North Idaho’s Highway 200 in a rented Kia.

Ahead was an almost-1 million-pound mega-load of refinery equipment, bound for a facility in Great Falls, Mont., that processes crude oil from the controversial tar sands in Alberta, Canada. More than 300 feet long and 20 feet wide, the shipment moved at about 15 mph. Red, yellow and white lights from the trailer and its attendant vehicles shone in a smear down the rain-slick road. Rain pelted the little sedan’s windshield. Lightning from a mid-summer storm flashed on the horizon.

WIRT community organizer Helen Yost had her eye on the clock. She wanted to test the Idaho Transportation Department’s promise to keep traffic delays under 15 minutes. It turned out to be 15 minutes—almost to the second—before the trailing cars were allowed to pass.

The mega-load chase was an impromptu affair. When the shipment first arrived in Sandpoint around 1 a.m., the idea among protesters, who had traveled from as far as Moscow, was to greet it with signs and heckling. That they did, waving cards decrying tar sands oil and several panels festooned with electric lights shaped to read “No megaloads.”

click to enlarge Protesters greeted the mega-load of oil refinery equipment as it crawled through Sandpoint. - CAMERON RASMUSSON
  • Cameron Rasmusson
  • Protesters greeted the mega-load of oil refinery equipment as it crawled through Sandpoint.

The shipment’s pilot vehicles were the first to enter Sandpoint after crossing the iconic, two-mile Long Bridge. Then came a retinue of Idaho State Police troopers, and finally the shipment itself, bearing an American flag fluttering in the rain. That annoyed the protest group. They see the ITD-permitted overlegal shipment as a decision based on money, not democracy or the public good.

click to enlarge Hauled by shipper Bigge Crane, the mega-load of oil refinery equipment weighed about 1 million pounds with trailer and support trucks. - CAMERON RASMUSSON
  • Cameron Rasmusson
  • Hauled by shipper Bigge Crane, the mega-load of oil refinery equipment weighed about 1 million pounds with trailer and support trucks.

When the shipment finally inched its way onto the Sand Creek Byway en route to Highway 200, several protesters jumped in their cars and gave chase.

A few miles northeast of Sandpoint, on the federally designated Highway 200 scenic byway, the convoy of protesters was finally waved through to pass the shipment. WIRT members drove past the load, found a place to pull over and brought out their signs for a second round of protesting as the mega-load caught up. The operation repeated itself—protest as the shipment inched past, fall in behind and wait for another opportunity to overtake the load and protest again. It was about a half-hour before WIRT members were allowed to pass a second time. Yost suspected protesters were then considered “non-standard” highway traffic, and could be delayed longer than the standard 15 minutes.

“They probably don’t like us much with all that heckling we did,” she said.

click to enlarge Members of environmental activist group Wild Idaho Rising Tide trailed the mega-load of oil refining equipment as it snaked along scenic Highway 200 on its way to the Montana border. - CAMERON RASMUSSON
  • Cameron Rasmusson
  • Members of environmental activist group Wild Idaho Rising Tide trailed the mega-load of oil refining equipment as it snaked along scenic Highway 200 on its way to the Montana border.

At about 2:50 a.m., the mega-load finally reached a pullout between Trestle Creek and Hope, a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Pend Oreille. There it would sit until the evening of Aug. 15. The WIRT crew considered finding a place to protest as it parked, but ended up being stopped by the driver of a pilot vehicle while the shipment completed its parking maneuver.

Yost was nodding off regularly by that time. It had been a series of late nights for her and fellow activists with no sign of respite. They had dogged the mega-load since it entered Idaho in Lewiston on Aug. 10. By Aug. 17—a week later—the shipment was nearing the end of its route in the Gem State, poised to enter Montana and ending WIRT’s pursuit, but not its opposition.

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