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Politics stall Alberta oilsands component delivery

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by Richard Gilbert

Protests and legal action against the shipment of mega-loads in Idaho and Montana have forced Imperial Oil to develop a new plan to transport more than 200 massive modules to the $8-billion Kearl oilsands construction project north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.
The port of Lewiston
The port of Lewiston

Protests and legal action against the shipment of mega-loads in Idaho and Montana have forced Imperial Oil to develop a new plan to transport more than 200 massive modules to the $8-billion Kearl oilsands construction project north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

“The bottom line is that this was just a damn bad idea from the start,” said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation of the state’s rivers and water.

“This is illustrated by the fact that so many diverse groups are fighting this from so many different quarters.”

Idaho Rivers United filed a lawsuit on March 10 against the U.S. Forest Service for allegedly violating the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act and other federal laws, by allowing the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) to issue permits for the transport of 207 construction modules via U.S. Highway 12.

Filed in Boise’s U.S. District Court, the lawsuit is the first federal action to challenge Exxon Mobil’s proposal to transport the modules through protected river corridors, which are the responsibility of the Forest Service.

The transportation would include the construction of pull out areas and other infrastructure needed to transport the modules.

Imperial Oil, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp., hasn’t obtained Idaho’s final permission to transport the initial shipment of 33 giant pre-assembled modules from Lewiston along U.S. Highway 12 to Montana.

But, a permit was issued for an over sized test load.

“The Idaho Transportation Department issued a permit for us to move the test validation module, which is a specially designed module to demonstrate loads of this size, to show it could be transported safely,” said Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser.

The permit issued on Feb. 14 is for a load that is 24 feet wide, 30 feet high, 208 feet long and weighs about 508,000 pounds.

The issuance of the permit by the ITD also resulted in a contested case hearing being scheduled on April 25 to deal with Imperial’s proposal.

The hearing allows opponents to present evidence and testimony.

“One of the things that so riled people here and made them take up arms is that nobody, including Exxon Mobil, state legislators and the governor, thought enough about that corridor to ask the citizens of Idaho what they thought or ask what impact it will have,” said Sedivy.

“You can’t make these decisions in a vacuum. Many local people want to protect corridors and all the intangible things that they give us.”

People in Idaho are upset the Clearwater River, along with its Lochsa and Selway tributaries, are being compromised. They were among the first eight rivers in America protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 1968.

Sedivy said the opposition is an informal coalition of citizens, small businesses, First Nations, recreational and sporting groups, commercial rafting companies, as well as environmental and wildlife groups.

In response to the delays in the permitting process, Imperial is developing an alternative route.

“The alternative plan mitigates the cost and schedule implications, which allows the modules to be transported on an interstate highway, by reducing their size and weight,” said Rolheiser.

“Our original plan, which is to apply for secure permits to transfer oversize modules on U.S. Highway 12, is still the preferred option.”

He said Imperial has the option of breaking apart 33 modules into 60 smaller shipments, which will allow them to travel on major highways rather than U.S. Highway 12 through Idaho and Montana.

In February, Advocates for the West filed a petition with the director of the ITD to withdraw the approval of the permits because Imperial is already cutting up the loads at Lewiston to send them a different route.

They also plan to ship more loads from Vancouver, Washington via interstate highways.

“These facts completely undercut Exxon’s assertions over the last year that they have to use Highway 12 for these mega-loads,” said Laird Lucas, executive director of Advocates for the West.

Added to this legal challenge, the National Wildlife Federation and Missoula County commissioners filed a court injunction on April 1 to prevent Imperial from moving oversized loads across Montana.

The court action targets an environmental assessment released by the Montana Department of Transportation in February, which found no significant negative impacts on roads and the environment.

As part of the first phase of the Kearl oilsands construction project, Imperial awarded a contract worth US$250-million to a South Korean manufacturer Sungjin Geotec Co to supply 207 giant pre-assembled modules.

A large shipment of modules, which are made up of machinery, specialized pressure vessels and heat exchangers, arrived in the Port of Vancouver, Washington late last year. The first 33 modules were transported by barge on the Columbia and Snake Rivers to Lewiston, Idaho before barge traffic closed on Dec. 10.

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