Drums Along the Columbia 

Summer is construction season in Idaho. It's not out of the ordinary to have a string of weeks filled with warm, dry conditions, ideal for round-the-clock road maintenance. While current construction on State Street or at the Vista interchange in Boise may impact more drivers on a daily basis, it may also be fair to assume that no project is attracting more scrutiny than the Arrow Bridge on U.S. Highway 12 near Lewiston.

By now, you may have followed BW's coverage on the proposed transportation of more than 200 loads of massive drilling equipment from the Port of Lewiston, across Highway 12, through Montana and up to the oil-sands of remote Alberta, Canada (BW, News, "Taking the Scenic Route," July 7, 2010). But first in line to travel across U.S. 12 is another controversial load--not as many rigs mind you--but almost as big.

Currently sitting at the Port of Lewiston are four enormous cylindrical steel drums bound for the Conoco Phillips refinery in Billings, Mont. Each truckload is expected to weigh 300 tons, spread across 13 axles, and each will be more than 200 feet long, 29 feet wide and 26 feet high. The drums were manufactured in Japan, shipped across the Pacific and barged up the Columbia and Snake rivers to Lewiston. But the final leg of the journey--700 miles--will be the most challenging.

If permitted by the Idaho Transportation Department, the loads will slowly crawl across U.S. 12, crossing some 40 Idaho bridges. One of them is the Arrow Bridge where Hwy. 12 crosses the Clearwater River. And right now, not much of anything is crossing the bridge. Since early May, McAlvain Construction of Boise has been giving the Arrow a facelift. Problems arose during sandblasting of a span on the eastern end: there was much more deterioration of the deck than expected. The $1.2 million project was expected to wrap up two weeks ago. Now, one-half of the project----the eastbound lane--should be completed by Friday, Aug. 6, according to Mel Coulter, ITD spokesman.

But Conoco won't be waiting for the other lane to be finished to apply for a permit.

"They can technically move the equipment on just one lane," said Coulter. "The permits are only good for four days, so we expect them to apply within a day or two of them rolling out. So feasibly, we could see them move as early as mid August."

And in the wake of another story (BW, News, "Hell of a Well," July 14, 2010), the Environmental Protection Agency is considering the risks and potential of natural gas extraction. BW reported that Bridge Resources has had success in three of five natural gas drilling operations in Payette County and has been given the green light to drill five more.

The EPA has been on what they're calling a "listening tour," soliciting advice from all sides on how to shape a forthcoming $1.9 million study of gas drilling's effect on groundwater.

Payette is relatively late to the natural gas game. In what is known as the Marcellus Shale region, stretching from West Virginia across much of Pennsylvania and Ohio and into New York State, an industry-financed study published last week suggested that as much as $6 billion in government revenue and up to 250,000 jobs could be at stake.

But at the national level, in addition to the EPA study, a Congressional investigation of gas drilling, led by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, intensified last week with demands sent to several companies for details on their operations.

While environmental groups are welcoming the scrutiny, they're still calling for more clear and broad federal jurisdiction.

"Any one accident might not be on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster," said Amy Mall, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But accidents are happening all the time, and there's no regime in place that broadly protects the surrounding environment where drilling is being done."

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