Roughly a year ago, residents along the pristine roadways between Idaho's Port of Lewiston and Montana's Port of Sweetgrass began hearing whispers of an unprecedented, large-scale transportation project by Canadian ExxonMobil subsidiary Imperial Oil. Residents on the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers reported witnessing road-widening projects on stretches of Highway 12 and raised power lines with little explanation. By the time Imperial Oil hosted its first public meetings in spring 2010 to introduce the particulars of its Kearl Module Transportation Project (KMTP), many people in Idaho were incensed. Folks just over the border in Missoula—where ExxonMobil officials appeared at Meadow Hill School on April 29, 2010, to take comments on their own environmental assessment (EA)—proved equally angry about and confused by the proposal.
The KMTP is an almost inconceivable act to anyone who regularly drives Imperial Oil's proposed route on highways 12, 200, 287 and 89. The largest of the corporation's 207 oversized loads, destined for the controversial Alberta tar sands mining operation, are three stories tall, longer than a hockey rink and 200,000 pounds heavier than the Statue of Liberty. The first 200 miles of road snake around tight corners and up steep inclines, frequently bordered on one side by sheer cliffs and on the other by a sudden drop toward the Clearwater and the Lochsa. Once over Lolo Pass, the loads will navigate their way down Reserve Street in Missoula before following the famed Blackfoot River up to Roger's Pass and the Rocky Mountain Front. The loads will crawl at 10 to 30 miles per hour while taking up both lanes of highway, and all movement is scheduled to occur between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., presumably when locals are asleep.
Shortly after Imperial Oil introduced its proposal, ConocoPhillips came forward with a similar request to transport two coke drums in four oversized pieces from the Port of Lewiston to its refinery in Billings. The request generated a legal firestorm in Idaho last August when 1,700 citizens signed and delivered a petition to the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD). The petition led to a protracted courtroom battle against ITD's approval of ConocoPhillips' oversized load permits. News of another high-and-wide proposal—this one from Korean state-run oil corporation Harvest Energy—surfaced late last fall, strengthening fears of highways 12 and 200 becoming a permanent industrial corridor.
Imperial Oil has maintained from the outset that the KMTP promises an estimated $67.8 million in economic activity in Montana—including $11.4 million for road modifications and the construction of 53 new turnouts, and $21.6 million for utility relocations. Gov. Brian Schweitzer embraced the project on that premise, as has Idaho Gov. Butch Otter. Some business owners and local officials in both states welcome the big rigs for the financial boost they might provide; Powell County this month became the first county in Montana to take an official stance in support of the KTMP.
Despite efforts to garner some support, opposition to what's now popularly known as the "heavy haul" has grown fast in a short time. Missoula alone boasts three organizations all dedicated to stopping the big rigs. A sister group in Idaho spearheaded by more than a dozen Highway 12 residents held ConocoPhillips in an expensive legal tangle that lasted six months, and intends to do the same if and when Imperial Oil's permits are approved. Montana writers Rick Bass and David James Duncan recently released an activist book titled The Heart of the Monster, a 249-page condemnation of Imperial Oil's bid pulled together in roughly one month.
This week, ITD officially issued ConocoPhillips the necessary permits to begin hauling two loads on Feb. 1. The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), which stated last month that it would follow ITD's lead, won't be far behind in issuing its own permits. Opposition leaders in Idaho are now scrambling with their legal counsel, Boise-based Advocates for the West, to decide how they can proceed in court. Their counterparts in Missoula plan to host demonstrations as the loads pass through, and for months have been exploring other options to resist the heavy haul.
With ConocoPhillips likely hitting the road in mere days, and with Imperial Oil awaiting its turn, the hopes and fears expressed by fractured communities along the route will soon reach a crescendo. But already, these oversized loads have made an indelible mark along every stretch of the route.
The Port of Lewiston
Port of Lewiston Manager David Doeringsfeld sits in a spacious conference room just a few hundred yards from where dozens of oversized loads are currently stored for two major oil corporations. He spins an uplifting tale of job creation and job salvation here in Lewiston resulting directly from the presence of Imperial Oil and ConocoPhillips. Without their business, he says the port would have laid off its container yard personnel this winter.
"The river system is down right now for almost a three and a half month period," Doeringsfeld says. "If it weren't for the storage and working with Imperial and Conoco right now, we would have had to lay off all the employees with our container yard operations because right now there's just limited rail service through the port while locks are being repaired on the Columbia-Snake River system...This has allowed us to keep our people employed during that period of time."
Specifically, Doeringsfeld says the business has directly saved five jobs in the port's container yard.
ConocoPhillips' four shipments–coke drums destined for the company's refinery in Billings—arrived in late May last year. More than 30 of Imperial Oil's Erector Set-like modules showed up four months later, and now line the edge of the container yard. The profit for the port from ExxonMobil alone totals $80,000 a month, Doeringsfeld says.
"I think the majority of the residents of the area recognize the benefits," he says. "Activity fosters activity, and when you're able to bring in a new business such as this, there's the potential of job creation not just in the short term but in the long term."
Those jobs could include engineers hired to work on electrical components and welders contracted for metal work, he adds.
But Doeringsfeld's story isn't entirely positive. The number of containers handled by the Port of Lewiston has dropped dramatically over the past decade, as has the amount of wheat transported annually from the country's grain belt through the port to markets in Asia. Lewiston processed 675,596 containers in 2007, according to the port's historic shipping report. That total fell to 388,957 in 2010. The decline is mostly attributed to increased use of railways to ports farther west like Seattle, Doeringsfeld says. And with the Columbia and Snake rivers closed through late March for lock repairs on three dams, barge business is at present non-existent.
To make up for tumbling revenues, Doeringsfeld has been marketing the port as a gateway to a valuable yet relatively undiscovered oversized shipping corridor—primarily utilizing Highway 12—that ties the Pacific Rim to Canada and the interior United States.
"Utilizing this route as a viable alternative has only been recently 'discovered' by logistics companies representing companies who have oversized equipment destined for the interiors of Canada and the U.S. Midwest," the port's website states in a section titled "Columbia-Snake Corridor and Highway 12: The West Coast Alternative." "The carbon footprint, transportation, permitting and strategic planning costs of utilizing this route [are] significantly less than shipping through alternate marine routes importing into the United States with the same destination."
Doeringsfeld adds that in 2009, he and representatives from the Port of Vancouver attended a conference in Calgary with the intention of directly promoting the heavy haul corridor to natural resource development corporations. The Port of Lewiston has effectively incorporated roadways east of its docks in this mass marketing strategy, earning the ire of residents, business owners, agency officials and environmental activists across the U.S. and Canada.