The Tortoise Trail

11th of Feb 2014

Mega Load case environmental law Advocates for the West photographed by Dave King

An ongoing saga of the wandering mega-load
By Linwood Laughy

February 11: Day 70 on the Tortoise Trail…
Today General Electric’s giant water evaporator evades the rigors of a Montana winter in a warehouse in Bonner, 11 miles east of Missoula, while being “reconfigured” to meet Canadian transport requirements. Omega Morgan transporter will likely depart Bonner this week, although today’s forecast predicts heavy snow and hazardous conditions on Hwy 200 along the Blackfoot River. Now 70 days from Umatilla, the mega-load has traveled 900 miles, averaging 13 miles per day.  In another 300 miles it will reach Canada, and then in 600 more, its tar sands destination. In November Omega Morgan predicted 20 days for the entire trip.

Since the last Tortoise Trail report of January 14, Omega Morgan lost a second week at Lost Trail Pass when the load’s 120 tires became iced in and attempts to free the load resulted in a “mechanical problem;” that is, a wiped-out transmission. The Idaho Transportation Department quickly came to the rescue. According to Omega’s guard at the site, ITD used 1,000 gallons of de-icer to free the load.  An ITD maintenance foreman told a Post Register reporter, “It was probably 1,000 gallons we put down there. It’s a long turnout, so it takes quite a bit.” Adam Rush, ITD spokesperson, reported in an email: “They let me know that nearly 1,000 gallons of salt brine was applied to one of the Omega Morgan equipment shipments after snow and ice accumulated in the pullout.” Within two days, according to a revised ITD report, that volume had magically shrunk to 20 gallons.

Blue-stained snow was not the only mess left at the two-week pullout on the day after the mega-load departed. The same Post Register reporter also noted “several piles of human waste and shop rags smeared with what appeared to be feces.” An Omega Morgan spokesperson told the press: “There has been a very high interest in this move and we’ve attracted some onlookers while we are parked on the side of the road.” So, according to Omega Morgan, apparently onlookers are to blame—curious Idahoans who carry shop rags in their vehicles. The day after the mega-load departed, ITD bladed the pullout, pushing remaining litter and stain over a bank along the North Fork of the Salmon River. “Routine maintenance,” ITD declared.

No phrase has been more frequently used during the mega-load wars than the false claim the load will pull over every 15 minutes to let traffic pass, as required by state regulations. However, for several days a bit of agency honesty did creep onto ITD’s 511 Traveler Information website as the mega-load moved through eastern Idaho: Expect 30-minute delays due to an oversized load.

After finally topping Lost Trail Pass near midnight on January 20th the load traveled down the Bitterroot Valley in two nights to Lolo without major incident, then was stopped briefly in downtown Missoula by the passionate caring of a 71-year-old grandmother sitting in the roadway trying to protect her grandchildren from the climate chaos the loads will help unleash onto an ever-warming world. Indian Peoples Action round dancers expressed their grave concern for the next 7 generations while demonstrating their solidarity with Canadian First Nations.

Previous Tortoise Trail reports have included humor and history, an occasional dash of irony, and the factual data upon which this drama depends. However, observing my own state government’s slavish support for the largest environmental disaster ever perpetrated by mankind — at considerable present and future taxpayer expense and for the financial benefit of the most profitable corporations in the world — makes humor hard to find.

Previously on the Tortoise Trail:

Day 45 on the Tortoise Trail…
After 40 days and nights in the wilderness, the Omega Morgan megaload pioneering a southern and eastern Idaho route to Alberta’s tar sands was parked in snow on Highway 93 ten miles short of Lost Trail Pass and the Montana border. The load began its road trip at the Port of Umatilla on December 1st.  To date the giant piece of mining equipment is averaging 17.6 miles/day, less than the cross-country pace of an average horse or a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. In mid-November an Omega Morgan spokesperson told media the megaload would arrive at its destination just south of Fort McMurray 20 days after its departure. This stretch of Highway 93 is part of the route Lewis & Clark traveled in 1805. Sections of the trail remain lost and hence the name of the pass. The load is parked close to the ghost town of Gibbonsville named after John Gibbon, the U.S. Army colonel who led a pre-dawn attack on a nearby Nez Perce camp resulting in approximately 90 dead Indians, mostly women and children. The Big Hole National Battlefield lays a short way east of Gibbonsville over Chief Joseph Pass. Omega Morgan has a hard time avoiding history and Indians.

On Friday, January 10, the Montana Department of Transportation finally issued Omega Morgan a 32-J permit for travel from Lost Trail Pass to Bonner, 11 miles east of Missoula. The permit delay happened, at least in part, because the heavy hauler’s revised transportation plan failed to notice the load was higher than the streetlights in the town of Hamilton. The offending streetlights will no doubt be reconstructed so they can be swiveled out of the way of progress.

According to MDOT, the load will remain at Bonner for about two weeks undergoing a “reconfiguration.” A building near Cut Bank, Montana was originally the intended stop for this work, but that structure blew down. Twice.

Last Sunday two avalanches near Lost Trail Pass temporarily closed Highway 93.  Snow and high winds have plagued the area for several days. Understandably, Mother Earth doesn’t like tar-sands megaloads.

If the weather improves and the Idaho Transportation Department assigns enough snowplows and de-icing trucks to the project, Omega Morgan could get back on the Tortoise Trail Tuesday night, January 14. Only one of those conditions is a sure bet. Bonner is exactly 100 miles and an unknown number of Montana protestors ahead. Add a minimum of 3 days’ travel to Bonner and 14 days for reconfiguration, and the load will theoretically start up the Blackfoot River valley on day 62 with a cumulative travel average of 14.8 miles/day. That’s if Omega Morgan is able to enter Montana Tuesday night, reaches Bonner in 3 days, and gets a new travel permit in a timely manner. After Bonner they’ll likely need a major February chinook to melt the snow off Rogers Pass.

Day 19 on the Tortoise Trail…
In November, Omega Morgan spokesperson Holly Z. told the press the first of 3 General Electric evaporators would pass through eastern Oregon in 5 days and be in Canada in 20. The pronouncement also stated OM planned to have all 3 evaporators delivered to their Athabasca tar sands destination in 60 days. After OM aborted its announced November 24th departure from the Port of Umatilla, the calendar and odometer were reset for December 1.

On December 19th, an eastern Oregon newspaper reported the GE mega-load is 4 miles east of Ironwood and 42 miles north of Vale, thus having now traveled about 237 miles on its eastern Oregon journey. Average speed to date is 12.5 miles per day. OM faces 79 more miles to Homedale, just inside the Idaho border.

The Omega Morgan travel schedule may put Governor Otter’s Christmas plans in flux, for certainly the governor will want to welcome OM to the state to say thanks for the wave of economic prosperity the mega-load transports will bring to southern and eastern Idaho. OM’s last welcome to Idaho, at the western edge of the Nez Perce reservation, did not go well, at least not for the transport company and the Idaho State Police. Surely a governor, who has stated repeatedly that a 600,000+ lb. mega-load with multiple axle weights exceeding 40,000 lbs. does no more highway damage than a one-ton pickup, will want to assure OM they have the complete support and ready assistance of the Idaho Transportation Department, who are probably right now moving extra snow plows and a fleet of de-icing trucks into place to match the extra assistance they always provided mega-loads, at taxpayer expense, on Highway 12.

ITD did recently make a small correction in the distance Omega Morgan will be pounding Idaho highways. Based on an inquiry from the press, ITD changed that distance from 355 miles to 488. At their present rate of travel, OM will be climbing 7,100-foot Lost Trail Pass into Montana about 39 days from now, or close to February 1st.  But perhaps Idaho’s 5,000-7,000-foot elevations along Highway 28 will be easier in January than eastern Oregon’s 4,000-foot passes were in December.

Meanwhile, near the other end of the state, ITD officials will today attempt to explain why mega-loads measuring 27 feet wide, 472 feet long and weighing 1.6 million pounds should be permitted to travel through downtown Coeur d’Alene, hopefully for more reasons than because the loads are too heavy to cross Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.

The ITD announcement regarding these plans came earlier this week, with the construction of a new on-ramp to I-90 “mostly completed” and thus apparently ITD now desires public input. At least ITD assures the public that the concrete barriers between I-90’s lanes will be removed, the 1.6 million-ton load pushed and pulled up the new on-ramp, maneuvered across all 4 lanes, then crabbed into the 2 eastbound lanes and the barriers replaced all in 10 minutes. Yup, 10 minutes. ITD’s staff must have attended the same communications and public relations school attended by the folks at Omega Morgan.

For anyone wishing to extend Seasons Greetings to the Omega Morgan mega-load crew, we suggest sending your card to a destination somewhere just inside the Idaho border…Homedale might be a safe bet.


Day 8 on the Tortoise Trail…

General Electric’s tarsands-bound giant evaporator sits beside Highway 395 just south of Pendleton. Apparently the public relations firm that provides the spin for Omega Morgan finally told the truth after OM failed to begin their super-trek on November 24th as previously announced.

“We’re not in any hurry,” the spokesperson told the media that week. Of course, GE and Omega Morgan were in a super hurry this fall when they appealed Judge Winmill’s decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals; enough of a hurry to ask for an emergency review and stay of the judge’s order to close Highway 12 to Omega Morgan mega-loads. Without an immediate lifting of the court order said RCCI, a subsidiary of GE, they would lose many millions of dollars for failure to deliver in a timely manner. Now they are not in a hurry. Good thing.

Thus far in the mega-loads saga, ExxonMobil remains in third place for daily average speed when its test validation module averaged 9 miles per day from the Port of Lewiston to Lolo Hot Springs 7 miles inside Montana, where it sat under 24-hour guard for 13 months before being dismantled for scrap. ConocoPhillips remains the champ, averaging 6.3 miles per day for 91 days between Lewiston and Billings, but Omega Morgan has a chance to beat that record considering their present performance.

After 8 days “on the road,” (well, actually 1 day blockaded at the Port of Umatilla’s parking lot, 1 day traveling and 6 more days beside the road), OM has moved their load about 44 miles, thus averaging 5.5 miles per day. At this rate of travel, OM would deliver the evaporator in 319 days, or sometime in October, 2014. But let’s give it a couple more weeks before we bump Conoco into second place. After all, OM isn’t in any hurry. And that’s a good thing, because the tough parts of the trip still lie ahead…