Bearing the Load

En route to a Montana refinery, a mega-load moves through North Idaho


They've crawled up mountainsides, wound their way along rivers and inched across prairies, but everywhere they've gone, so-called mega-loads of oil refining equipment bound for the Alberta tar sands have been controversial. Blocked by protest and legal action from using scenic U.S. Highway 12 as a route to Montana and beyond, the oversized shipments have been forced to find alternative passage.

This time, one such load--a 926,000-pound piece of a hydrocracker bound for the Calumet refinery in Great Falls, Mont.--is headed north on U.S. 95, then east on Idaho Highway 200.

The route will take it from Lewiston to Moscow, then to Coeur d'Alene and, during its final leg in Idaho, across one of the most unique pieces of infrastructure in Idaho: the 2-mile Long Bridge that stretches across the mouth of the Pend Oreille River and into Sandpoint. From there, it will access Highway 200 and make its way along the twisting, federally designated scenic byway that follows the eastern shore of Lake Pend Oreille, through Clark Fork and into Montana.

The Idaho Transportation Department issued a permit for the over-legal load, carried by transport company Bigge Crane, on Aug. 8. The shipment entered Idaho on Aug. 10, and began its northward trek on U.S. 95. It is expected to move through Sandpoint on Sunday, Aug. 17, or if "things go real well," according to ITD spokesman Marvin Fenn, as early as Thursday, Aug. 14. The load can only travel between the hours of 10 p.m.-5:30 a.m., and cannot move Friday or Saturday night.

According to ITD spokesman Adam Rush, the 300-foot-long, 21-foot-wide load will take about 16 minutes to cross the Long Bridge. Fully loaded, and with support vehicles, the shipment weighs more than 1 million pounds.

"Idaho State Police will be escorting the transport and if there's an emergency vehicle that needs to use the Long Bridge, they'll be able to coordinate with ISP to make arrangements," he said.

The Bigge Crane load replaces a 1.6 million-pound shipment from Mammoet USA. Mammoet withdrew its permit and the hydrocracker was broken up into three pieces, with two moved by rail.

No matter the shipper or the time, Helen Yost said protesters from her organization, Wild Idaho Rising Tide, will be there to demonstrate.

"The people in Sandpoint have never, ever been offered a public meeting and people are pretty angry about it," Yost said. "Highway 95 has served as kind of the sacrifice zone for U.S. 12. ... We're definitely planning protests in Sandpoint."

Moscow-based Wild Idaho Rising Tide has dogged mega-loads around the state, helping organize road blockades, mounting sign-wielding demonstrations, and documenting mega-load progress since they first started wending through Idaho as part of the Canadian oil boom.

Approximately the length of NASA rockets, the mammoth loads take up two lanes of traffic, travel with an entourage of support vehicles and move at speeds of between 5 and 36 miles per hour. Their size and speed have been criticized as hampering emergency vehicles, their weight has been blamed for damage to roads and bridges, and their mission has been demonized for supporting the tar sands oil project--what many have called the most environmentally disastrous industrial undertaking on Earth.

"It's crazy that they're even trying to move these things through the Mountain West," Yost said, adding that expansion at the Calumet refinery in Great Falls, Mont., represents a troubling development.

"We've seen documents that make it look like they want to triple its size," she said. "It looks totally like it's a tar sands refinery, taking crude from the Bakken shale area."

Yost is also disturbed that mega-load manufacturing seems to be moving east.

"They're shipping smaller loads to remote assembly facilities--that's how they're getting around us," she said. "From there it's a beeline on these little tiny roads in the Rocky Mountain Front up to the tar sands in Alberta."

According to The River Journal, a monthly news magazine based in Clark Fork, the load moving across the Long Bridge will not only block most of the bridge during its traverse, but its weight will require construction of a temporary, or "jumper," bridge near the lakeshore hamlet of Hope. Not to mention its potential impacts on the scenic byway itself.

"It's said to be the heaviest thing to ever be haul on Hwy. 95; the previous record holder only weighed 400,000 pounds," wrote TRJ Publisher Trish Gannon.

Rush told BW that "the bridges are a factor" in evaluating the mega-load route, and "there is a lot of research and planning and engineering that goes into that kind of move."

The Long Bridge span was built in 1981 and stretches 1.1 miles over water, making it one of the longest causeway bridges in the country.

"That's a lot of weight to put on a bridge that's out over the water for more than a mile," Yost said.

Rush said axles on the trailer carrying the load are positioned in such a way as to spread the weight evenly: "It's not sitting on one focal point."

Sandpoint Mayor Carrie Logan isn't worried about it.

"I'm sure they look at what loads all the bridges and ramps can take, and that's part of the analysis and permitting--what weight can go on the roads," she told BW.

"It doesn't disrupt anything for us, unless they break down," Logan added. "I think the time of night they're picking to do it, there's not any activity on the road. The one problem is given how wide it is--I think it's as wide as the bridge--you worry about emergency vehicles."

That problem can be mitigated by relying on fire and ambulance services from neighboring communities and the county sheriff's office, she said.

"I'm not worried about it," said Logan. "I'm just really curious."