In negotiations with state agencies and public officials, the world’s wealthiest corporations began hatching plans several years ago to transform rivers and rural roads in the Northwest and Northern Rockies into a permanent industrial corridor to the Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada. Their proposal: to ship megaloads (up to 30 feet high, 24 feet wide, 220 long, and 650,000 pounds) along a route that is one of the most scenic and historic in the western US, comprising portions of the Lewis and Clark and Nez Perce National Historic Trails, three Wild and Scenic Rivers, a National Scenic Byway and All American Road, the Trans-America Bicycle Route, one of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine’s top-ten rides in the Rockies, and the setting for the famous book-turned-movie, A River Runs Through It.
- Are these megaloads really 650,000 lbs. and three stories high?
ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Harvest Energy Corporation want to transport nearly 300 South Korean-made loads that clock in at 650,000 lbs., 30 feet high, 30 feet wide, and over 220 feet long. That’s heavier than the Statue of Liberty, as tall and wide as a three-story building, and three-quarters of a football field long.
This is not the same as moving a mobile home, agricultural equipment, or even large houses. Highway 12 has never experienced a load this large before, or the frequency of large loads that is proposed. We wholeheartedly support the trucking industry, but even they will suffer from delays caused by these massive loads. Truckers will have to make changes to their normal shipping schedules, and logging trucks in the Highway 12 area will experience significant slow-downs in business as they confront megaloads on the highway up until 5:30 AM.
- Is it true that this could become a permanent megaload corridor?
Yes, if these trucks are allowed to pass, hundreds, if not thousands more will follow. In July 2009, Montana Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch, commented:
“We’re not talking about one load, we’re talking about an operation for an extended period of time.” He continued, “We are actually setting the stage for a high-wide corridor through the state of Montana to be used probably for things we haven’t even imagined yet.” “We’re talking about 200 to 500 loads. We’re no longer talking about a single load. And that is a significant impact to the state [emphasis added].” “It’s going to be a major impact to activities that are currently operating on this corridor if this was allowed to go forward.”
The Port of Lewiston, ID, has indicated that Exxon, Conoco, and Harvest Energy are likely only the first of many corporations that will use the corridor: “If one oil company is successful with this alternative transportation route, many other companies will follow their lead.”
Other indications of the permanence of the route include a statement by a member of the Alberta, Canada, Legislature to a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune: “A company like Imperial [Oil] is not spending $40 million…[to develop a high-and-wide corridor] for one project and one project only.”
In fact, reports have uncovered that Exxon has entered into a $1.5 billion contract with South Korean manufacturer, Sungjin Geotec, which could mean hundreds more loads will use this route in the near future.
- What are the alternative routes?
South Korean-made equipment like the loads proposed to come through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, have traveled to Alberta’s Tar Sands along several routes: through the Panama Canal and the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Galveston, Texas; through the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes to the Ports of Thunder Bay, Ontario and Duluth, Minnesota; and by train from the west coast of Canada. In some cases, these types of loads were built in train or normal-truck sized pieces, and then put together on site in Canada.
Why, then, did Exxon choose this impractical route? To save money. Instead of paying fair wages to American and Canadian laborers, they chose to outsource the work to foreign countries. Then, Exxon chose the cheapest route possible – the one that involved the fewest modifications to existing roadways. In fact, they chose one of the only routes between the west coast of the US and the Alberta border, that has zero overpasses. Other routes are possible through the US and Canada, but would have required more costly – but still feasible – modifications.
Don’t forget, ExxonMobil is the wealthiest corporation in the world. They earned $7.4 billion in the third quarter of 2010 alone. There’s no question they could have employed American or Canadian workers, or picked a safer route with fewer impacts.
- Couldn’t we have made these in North America?
Yes, we have the manpower and the facilities to build this equipment in the US or Canada. But instead of employing American or Canadian laborers, Exxon and Conoco decided to use Japanese and South Korean manufacturers.
Harry Tostowaryk, business manager for Ironworkers’ Local 720 in Edmonton, Alberta, recently stated “We have a lot of module facilities in the Edmonton area that are stone-cold quiet right now… We have capacity for an immense number, and it's interesting that they've chosen to build a third of them overseas." Noting Exxon’s complaints about the slow review process in Idaho and Montana, Tostowaryk commented, "You know what? I don't have much sympathy."
Asked why Exxon decided to use foreign workers instead of Americans or Canadians, Tostowaryk replied, "Labor costs. They can build them there cheaper, ship them to the Columbia [River], through the locks to Lewiston, and then put [them] on all the roads, yours and ours.
“It's amazing to think about how they can justify that difference, all the extra cost, and still do it cheaper than up here or down there in the U.S."
- Did Exxon and Conoco really develop these proposals in secrecy?
In the summer of 2009, Montana Department of Transportation Director, Jim Lynch, stated:
“I’m a little bit amazed that if they started this process two years ago why did they just come to us this summer. We’re talking about a long route. Can it be done? Right now we don’t have the information to justifiably tell the state of Montana that it can.”
The public did not become aware of the megaloads issue until April of 2010, when the Montana Department of Transportation held three hearings for Exxon’s proposal in the communities of Cut Bank, Lincoln, and Missoula. However, MDT likely learned of Exxon’s plan in April 2009, and Jim Lynch testified before Montana’s Revenue and Transportation Committee in July, 2010, where he gave a presentation entitled “Proposed High and Wide Corridors Briefing.”
Meanwhile, Idaho learned of Exxon’s proposal more than two years ago. In a February 2009 letter to the Port of Lewiston, Idaho Governor Butch Otter gave his explicit endorsement of ExxonMobil’s proposal, long before the state’s first public hearing was held in July of 2010. In his letter, Otter wrote: “I pledge our [Idaho’s] support and cooperation to enhance the development of this important new business opportunity.”
In contrast to the public hearings held in Montana for Exxon’s loads, no hearings were ever conducted on ConocoPhillips’ proposal to use portions of the same corridor. In an interview with the Missoulian, Dwayne Kailey of the Montana Department of Transportation “admitted” that “the Billings transport project wasn't mentioned at public hearings for the Canada project.” “‘I apologize for that,’" he said.
While Idaho and Montana citizens only learned of the projects in the last six to eight months, many Alberta citizens along the route may never learn of the project until the trucks are passing through their towns. Alberta Transportation spokesman Trent Bancarz recently stated in an interview that “there is no ‘assessment’ document available” for the Canadian portion of Exxon’s proposed route. Bancarz claimed that communities are “generally given advance notice” that the shipments will be passing through, but according to Canadian journalist Jeff Gailus, most towns “appear to be on their own.”
- Who’s going to benefit from this project?
Not Montanans or Idahoans. As Montana Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch said, “The bulk of the economic benefit to this operation is Canada’s, not Montana’s.” In fact, Exxon and Conoco’s proposed loads will be job killers.
The equipment was made in South Korea and Japan, and it’s being shipped by a Dutch contractor, which will be using foreign truck drivers – not Americans – to transport the equipment to Canada. No guarantees have been made for employing Idahoans or Montanans to do what minimal road or utility work must be done to accommodate the loads. Most of the new jobs will be temporary pilot car drivers and flaggers, and the other “new jobs” that Exxon claims it’s creating already exist, including utility workers and police officers.
If Exxon or Conoco really wanted to create jobs for Americans, they could have offered work to hundreds of local union laborers to build the components in the US. Instead, Exxon and Conoco hired South Korean and Japanese workers. An Alberta, Canada, industrial association recently stated, “This route (from Lewiston, Idaho to Canada) will become the highway for energy-related products from not only South Korea, but even-lower-wage suppliers such as China and Vietnam.”
In contrast, thousands of jobs stand to be lost in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Oregon, and property values will plummet along the route. Nearly 3,100 people in Missoula County, Montana, alone, are employed in tourism and recreation (making it one of the top five employment sectors in the County), and many of those could be lost when the high-and-wide corridor compromises recreation opportunities, scenery, and quality of life. For the entire state of Montana in 2007, nonresident visitor spending generated over 33,200 direct travel jobs to Montana and nearly 44,800 total jobs contributing to over $1.05 billion in total personal income for the state. According to UM Economist Steve Seninger, “even small reductions in tourism and outdoor recreation of 5% to 10% on a $4.3 billion dollar industry would represent a serious economic hit on the Montana economy.”
Business owners are worried that people will simply choose not to vacation along an industrial corridor. According to Bobby and Barry Bartlette, owners of the Square Dance Center and Campground, in Lolo, Montana, “This could make the difference between us being able to stay open and not.” Peter Grubb, owner of Idaho-based ROW Adventures and the River Dance Lodge, which sits on the banks of the Clearwater River next to Highway 12, said, “If there is any quick financial gain made from the transport of hundreds of loads through rural Idaho and Montana, it will be countered by the loss to the many sustainable tourism businesses along this route and the jobs of those these businesses employ. It's bad for the rivers, the roads and bridges and the people of Idaho.”
Missoula city councilman Jason Wiener sums it well: "The permanent high-wide corridor Conoco and Exxon are trying to muscle through Idaho and Montana threaten treasured natural spaces, the livelihoods of outfitters who rely on their sanctity, and the lifestyles of outdoorsmen for whom access is a basic piece of our quality-of-life. These giant oil companies expect us to idly consent to whatever is expedient for their bottom line. They've miscalculated."
- How will the megaloads threaten taxpayers and Montana’s budget?
The damage caused by the proposed megaloads (excluding potential future use) will be the equivalent of adding 35-40 million cars to Highways 12 and 200 in Idaho and Montana over the coming decades, and taxpayers will be saddled with the costs of road and bridge repair.
While Exxon will pay to raise or bury power lines, install swiveling signs and traffic lights that will allow the megaloads to pass, and build over 50 new turnouts along the Montana portion of the route alone (they claim the public will benefit from more places to make cell phone calls…never mind the fact that most places lack cell service), they are not paying to strengthen bridges or reinforce shoulders, or for any future road damage that occurs from the cumulative impact of these 600,000 pound loads.
We can get a taste for what’s to come by looking at Texas, a state that has had significant increases in megaload traffic in recent years. According to reporter Kate Galbraith of the Texas Tribune, “To TxDOT's chagrin, trucking companies and the industries they serve rarely shoulder the cost of fixing the [megaload] damage, which can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single state road.” Jodi Hodges, a public information officer in TxDOT's Fort Worth district, commented, “We've seen a lot of our roadways have base [problems], edges drop off, rutting, bridge hits, [and] shoulder damage.” In 2007, the Texas Department of Transportation spent $23 million on repairs in Johnson County alone.
More recently, a 300 ton megaload – similar in weight to those proposed to travel through Idaho and Montana – “peeled up” a roadway in West Texas, according to reporter Daralyn Schoenewald of the Abilene Reporter News. “Parts of the highway were peeled like a banana by the massive trailer hauling the transformer, said Dwayne Justice, Taylor County maintenance supervisor for TxDOT.” Pot holes and other damage were left in the megaload’s wake.
With close to 300 loads up to 650,000 pounds proposed for the first year of use alone, the proposed corridor from Lewiston, ID to Alberta could experience devastating road damage over the course of coming decades as these projects continue. Our cash-strapped state budgets and taxpayers will be burdened with undue costs while corporations rake in ever-higher profits.
- How do the megaloads threaten emergency response?
According to a study conducted by FightingGoliath.org, despite Idaho state regulations that limit traffic delays to less than 15 minutes, the megaloads will require up to 50 minutes between turnouts to negotiate treacherous portions of US Highway 12 along the Lochsa River. In order for the 650,000 pound loads to stay within the 15 minute time-frame, they would have to travel some winding stretches at speeds of nearly 50 miles per hour. For residents and visitors along the route, 15-plus minute delays could mean life or death:
“Early one morning about three years ago I went into anaphylactic shock,” says Kooskia, Idaho resident, Borg Hendrickson. If my husband hadn’t been able to get me to the Clearwater Valley Emergency Room very quickly, I could have died. Waiting 15 minutes or more for ExxonMobil or ConocoPhillips to clear their wide loads from the highway, might have been fatal for me.”
Hendrickson’s trip to the Emergency Room wasn’t unique along the 130 mile stretch between Lolo, MT and Kooskia, ID, where US Highway 12 is the only road in or out. Of the more than 4500 patients treated at Orofino, Idaho’s Clearwater Valley Hospital Emergency Room last year, 85% were transported by private vehicle, not by ambulance. Approximately half of these emergency runs were made on U.S. 12.
The Forest Supervisors of the Lolo and Clearwater National Forests have voiced their concerns for public safety, as well. Clearwater NF Supervisor Rick Brazell commented, in a letter to the Idaho Transportation Department:
“[Forest Service] employees require access to [sites along Highway 12] for daily maintenance as well as to respond to law enforcement situations both day and night. I am also concerned that the need to stop traffic on a regular basis has the potential to impede Forest Service responses to emergencies such as wildfires and other law enforcement situations. The additional potential for an accident or mechanical failure causing a causing a large transport vehicle to block highway traffic for long periods of time will impede our ability to carry out our public service mission. In addition to these concerns, an accident involving a vehicle of this size has the potential to cause damage to the natural resources on adjacent National Forest System lands.”
- How do the megaloads threaten public safety?
Exxon and Conoco’s proposed projects fly in the face of two of the Idaho and Montana Departments of Transportation primary goals: ensuring public safety and the efficient movement of people and goods on roadways.
While testifying at a recent hearing on the megaloads propoal in Boise, Idaho Transportation Department District Maintenance Engineer, Doral Hoff, admitted that if a load fell into a river next to Highway 12, “it could take up to a month or two months” to remove. That could mean one or two months of blocked access up or down river for rural residents of Highway 12. In some cases, the nearest services could instantly become inaccessible, and getting to emergency services or a grocery store would necessitate a two or three hour drive. Normal commercial truck traffic would be forced to take long and costly detours. And in the meantime, the Lochsa or Clearwater Rivers would essentially be dammed, resulting in severe bank erosion, fish mortality, and highway infrastructure damage.
It’s of little comfort to area residents that the Idaho Transportation Department permit issued for Conoco’s shipments states: "The load exceeds the normal capacity of all the bridges on the route…,” and that as the loads cross Lewiston’s Arrow Bridge, the push truck must be unhitched and "not be on the bridge with the load," suggesting that the weight of the pull truck, trailer, load, and push truck (yes, these loads require a truck to push and a truck to pull) would be too great for the aging bridge to handle.
Across Idaho and Montana, the loads will cross natural gas lines, water mains, sewers, and other utilities buried directly beneath the road surface. To date, the potential impacts to these vital services have not been examined.
- How likely are megaload accidents?
Accidents of this type are not only likely, but occurred as recently as summer 2010. According to the Lewiston Morning Tribune, “A tower that was 155 feet long with an outside diameter of 13 feet, weighing 300,000 pounds, was being transported by Mammoet to a BP…refinery…when it dropped from the truck on July 21 in East Chicago, Indiana.” While no injuries were reported, the accident resulted in the loss of water supply to area residents for several days. Mammoet, the Dutch company responsible for the accident, also happens to be the company hired by ExxonMobil to move its 207 loads between Lewiston, ID and the Kearl Oilsands Project in northern Alberta. However, Chris Allard, a senior project manager for Exxon, maintained in a recent interview with the Lewiston Morning Tribune that the likelihood of an incident along the route is no greater than that of “an elevator failing. [It's] an extremely remote event."
One can only imagine the consequences for rural residents of a megaload accident in a comparatively mountainous landscape with no alternate routes. Tractor trailer accidents and avalanches are a common occurrence on Highway 12, and can block traffic for extended periods of time. In September 2010, a diesel tanker spilled 7,500 gallons of fuel, threatening the Lochsa River, which lay only 10 yards away. The route is so dangerous, Swift Transportation Company, a national trucking operation with a hub in Lewiston, ID, has stopped using the corridor.
- How will the megaloads reduce access to tourists and recreators?
ConocoPhillips’ equipment hauler, Emmert International, has been granted permission by the Idaho Transportation Department to “barricade…approved turnouts for exclusive use for the wide loads up to 24 hours in advance for each move." In addition, ITD says that "Travel is allowed 7 days a week." Although these measures have only been granted for Conoco’s loads, it is likely that similar permission would be granted to ExxonMobil and other corporations for future moves.
At a minimum, Conoco will block 43 turnouts from public use. With nearly 300 loads proposed to travel through Idaho and Montana for the first year alone, that means turnouts along the Clearwater and Lochsa Wild and Scenic Rivers would be blocked off from recreational use for most of the year. Sportsmen, kayakers, rafters, sightseers, and drivers needing a break on the side of the National Scenic Byway and All American Road would be excluded from use of turnouts, trailheads, put-ins, and adjacent public land and water.
- What time of day are the megaloads going to be moving?
In violation of Montana law, Conoco and Exxon’s megaloads will travel at night along narrow, winding rural roads. For the protection of public safety, Montana law forbids loads of the size proposed by Conoco and Exxon from traveling roads at night, or between Fridays at 3PM, and sunrise on Mondays. However, in an attempt to reduce public opposition, the loads will illegally travel overnight, when accidents are more likely. Loads will move roughly between 11 PM and 5:30 AM, early enough to interfere with commuters, fishing or hunting outings, and ranch work.
- What is the exact route the loads will travel?
From the mouth of the Columbia River to the Alberta border, the loads will travel 1,000 miles along the rivers and rural roads of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. But then, there’s still 500 miles to go through quiet, rural communities in Alberta, many of which have never been contacted by the Alberta government to warn them of the impending high-and-wide corridor. The exact routes are outlined below on The Route page.
Exxon and Conoco share the first leg of the journey before their routes diverge – one to northern Alberta, the other to Billings, MT.
Loads are shipped from South Korea (Exxon) and Japan (Conoco) to the Port of Vancouver, Washington.
Exxon and Conoco’s loads are both barged up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to Lewiston, Idaho.
In Lewiston, the modules are loaded onto trucks for the remainder of the journey.
The route travels east over Lolo Pass to Lolo, MT via US 12.
North on US 93 to Interstate 90 via Reserve St in Missoula, MT.
East on I-90 to Bonner, MT, where the two routes diverge.
From Bonner, Conoco’s loads head east to Billings:
East on MT 210 to Clinton, MT.
East on I-90 to Garrison Junction, MT.
East on US 12 to Helena, MT.
North on Joslyn Street.
East on Brady Street.
North on Henderson Street.
East on W. Custer Avenue.
East on Canyon Ferry Road.
South on Wylie Drive.
East on US 12/South on US 287 to Townsend, MT.
East on US 12 to Harlowton via White Sulphur Springs.
North on US 191 to junction with MT 19 via Lewistown, MT.
South on MT 19 to Grass Range, MT.
South on US 87 to Roundup, MT.
West on US 12 to Lavina, MT.
South on MT 3 to Billings, MT.
East on E. Airport Road.
South on Chief Black Otter Trail.
West on 6th Avenue North.
South on N. 15th Sreet.
West on 1st Avenue N.
South on S. 27th Street.
East on Minnesota Avenue to the Billings Conoco Refinery.
ConocoPhillips Route Totals:
5,500 nautical miles from Japan to Lewiston, Idaho
700 road miles
19 days on the road from Lewiston, ID to Billings, MT
From Bonner, Exxon’s loads head east and north to Alberta:
East on MT 200 to the Junction of US 287 south of Augusta, MT.
North on US 287 to Choteau, MT.
North on US 89 to the junction with MT 44 (Valier Highway).
East on MT 44 (Valier Highway) to Valier, MT.
North on Cut Bank Highway, which turns into Valier Road/MT 358.
East on US 2 to Cut Bank, MT.
North on MT 213 to Santa Rita.
North on MT 214
East on Loop Road to Sweet Grass, Montana, and the Alberta Border.
From the Alberta (AB) Border to Fort MacKay, AB, site of the Kearl Oil Sands Project:
North on AB 4 to Wilson, AB.
North on AB 845 to junction with AB 539.
East on AB 539 to junction with AB 36.
North on AB 36 to junction with AB 28.
West on AB 28 to AB 63.
North on AB 63 to Fort MacKay and Kearl Oil Sands Project.
ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil Route Totals:
5,500 nautical miles from South Korea to Lewiston, Idaho
1,000 road miles from Lewiston, Idaho to Fort MacKay, Alberta
Ten days on the road between Lewiston, Idaho and the Montana-Alberta border