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For the intervenors, or citizens who brought the case, the key witness was Linwood Laughy, the man at the center of the public uprising against the megaloads. For Conoco, it was Mark Albrecht, an experienced and savvy manager at Emmert International, the company contracted to carry the loads. Both men gave compelling testimony that nevertheless was partially deflated by tough cross-examination.

Megaloads Court Battle Looks Like A Close Call

The two sides went toe-to-toe this week in a legal battle over megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 so closely fought that the hearing officer, Merlyn Clark, remarked he had no idea what his decision would be.

The two-day hearing in Boise ended with an order by Clark for the opposing attorneys to submit their post-hearing briefs by noon Wednesday, Dec. 15. Clark did not indicate when his written decision would be issued.

This was the first among several legal proceedings over the proposed Conoco megaloads that allowed testimony, and each side presented a star witness on Thursday, the final day. For the intervenors, or citizens who brought the case, the key witness was Linwood Laughy, the man at the center of the public uprising against the megaloads. For Conoco, it was Mark Albrecht, an experienced and savvy manager at Emmert International, the company contracted to carry the loads.

Both men gave compelling testimony that nevertheless was partially deflated by tough cross-examination.

Under questioning by the intervenors’ lead attorney, Laird Lucas, Laughy emerged as an intelligent and diligent pursuer of many questions concerning why and how Emmert intended to haul four loads of oil equipment that would be around 200 feet long, 27 feet high and wide enough to fill the entire highway, which is two lanes for much of the way from the inland Port of Lewiston, Idaho, to the destination of Billings, Montana.

Laughy, a Harvard University graduate with honors who later earned a PhD in education and psychology, has spent hundreds of hours on the highway as a tour guide, an author of books on the area, for travel from his home on the highway, and for recreation.

Much of his testimony was about measurements he made along the road. His objectives included estimating how long it might take the truck drivers to travel from one designated pullout to the next along the route and to assess whether pullouts were large enough to allow traffic to pass the rigs.

Several specific pullouts and segments of road were discussed at length, including a pullout less than 200 yards from the driveway of Laughy and his wife and co-activist, Borg Hendrickson.

According to a chart in a 700-page transport plan compiled by Emmert, which Laughy obtained through a public records request, the pullout near his home is 25 feet wide. He testified that this was “very inaccurate.” His measurements showed it was 13 feet at the widest spot, which caused him concern that traffic would not to able to get around the trucks.

Laughy also noted that a column in the transport plan’s chart seemed to indicate a total of 18 minutes would be needed to get from the previous pullout to the one near his driveway. This didn’t count adjustment of helper dollies to get across a bridge west of his property, an operation that another part of the transport plan said would take five minutes.

The maximum time allowed by ITD regulations for traffic to wait while the loads occupy the entire road is either 15 minutes or 10 minutes, depending on how the regulations are interpreted.

Under the questioning of Lucas, Laughy discussed several other segments of road that went around rock faces within inches of the white fog line, and pullouts he had measured as less than the width or length of the giant loads.

In Conoco lead attorney Eric Stidham’s cross-examination, he established that Laughy had no expertise in engineering, transportation, or oversized loads. Stidham likened the situation to an attempt by an attorney to understand aeronautics. Laughy responded that he could read a numerical chart, use a tape measure, and figure average speeds with a calculator.

Stidham pointed to a segment of road that the chart said was 8.2 miles long, which Laughy had calculated would have to be covered in the 10 minutes shown on the chart by traveling an average of 49 miles per hour on the narrow, winding road. Stidham said the distance had been misprinted on the chart, and the correct distance was 0.82 miles.

Stidham extracted an admission from Laughy that he did not know the convoy accompanying the trucks would include an advance flagger who could warn the main vehicles of approaching traffic, to enable them to respond before the oncoming traffic came to a stop. Laughy also acknowledged under questioning that he used no mathematical formula to determine if the traffic would have room to pass the trucks, basing his calculations entirely on data in the transport plan and his own road measurements.

Stidham asked if Laughy was aware that the devices called saddles, from which loads are suspended on Emmert rigs, had been specially modified for these trips, and Laughy said no. These modifications reduced the width of the transport, allowing traffic to pass more easily, Stidham said.

Albrecht’s testimony helped to strengthen such points. An Emmert employee for more than three decades whose rise from the ranks to an executive position had included working as a truck driver, Albrecht established his deep experience with transportation of extra-large loads.

He told Stidham that pullouts on the route had been measured an estimated 25 to 30 times over recent years by company supervisors and an independently contracted group. The figured were placed into schematic drawings and were run through calculations by Emmert engineers, who recommended modifications to the saddles, although clearance was possible without those changes. The modifications reduced the load widths from about 29 feet to 23 feet and the clearance from about 18 inches to 4 feet in some places near rocky outcrops, he said.

The times listed on the transport plan chart are not travel times, he said, but rather are estimates of possible delays. This implied that vehicle speed calculations by Laughy based on distance traveled over time were not necessarily accurate.

Under close cross-examination by Lucas, Albrecht explained that traffic delays began when vehicles stopped at a point in advance of the convoy. A delay time of, say, 10 minutes for a segment of the trip was an estimate of how long traffic would be delayed before being allowed to pass. Albrecht declared that all delay time restrictions on the chart would be met.

The chart shows six delays times of 15 minutes between segments. The rest are delays of 10 minutes or less.

Albrecht told Lucas that the five minutes to put on helper dollies to cross bridges mentioned in the plan was not a necessity, because the helper dollies were pre-attached and could be hydraulically lowered or raised within seconds, even as the trucks moved.

He said turnouts that Laughy had thought were not large enough for the rigs were adequate, because Laughy had measured the paved areas, but Emmert measured the smaller area of wheel base, using entrance and exit points on the pullout. Front and back sections of the vehicles could be independently maneuvered to “arch” into the spaces enough to allow traffic to pass, he said. Also, rock and grass on the river side of the paved pullout near Laughy’s home could be used for parking, which Laughy had not included in his measurements.

When Lucas questioned the time required for such maneuvers, Albrecht retorted, “These loads can accelerate and decelerate fast enough to put your head through the window.” He then added that the company’s goal was safety.

Albrecht avoided answering how long it would take to drive any given segment of road, saying that speeds were determined by the company’s highly experienced drivers. Generally, he said 30 mph would probably be “comfortable” on some stretches, down to 5 mph or 15 mph elsewhere.

He said “secondary pullouts” between some of the main pullouts would help to alleviate traffic delays, but Lucas did not present that chart. Stidham later introduced it as evidence, saying it was part of the transport plan.

Albrecht acknowledged that Emmert had made no preparations to forewarn the public of when the loads would be coming down the highway, so people could adjust their travel plans accordingly. He said ITD was responsible for that. Emmert did have a plan in place to contact other trucking companies in an effort to minimize commercial traffic conflicts.

Responding to a recent revelation that ITD’s now-defunct permits to Emmert for the loads allowed them to barricade pullouts for up to 24 hours prior to shipments, he indicated the company would help private vehicle operators as much as possible.

Emergency services, an important concern for area residents, who have no other route into nearby towns, could be supplied with the help of a state troopers and a staffed ambulance that would travel with the convoy, Albrecht contended. The load could be hydraulically leaned to help cars pass in emergencies, he said.

Other key issues addressed at the hearing included the wild and scenic values of the corridor, a federally-designated All-American Highway, which by definition is a destination unto itself that draws tourists worldwide. The two sides debated whether loads of equipment the size of three-story buildings going down the highway would be a transitory phenomenon or, as Lucas argued, would make an indelible impression on people’s minds, changing the corridor’s reputation to that of a place to be avoided because of the megaloads.

It also was confirmed during questioning that the Conoco employees at the hearing were being paid by the company to attend in lieu of going to work. Moreover, Conoco had hired lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and for Idaho and Montana, and was placing newspaper advertisements about the loads to counteract the public outcry and interviews Lucas had given.

Clark said he would keep to his plan of considering the four Conoco loads separately from 207 more such loads proposed to be sent along the route by Imperial Oil/Exxon Mobil, and other loads that have been mooted. He would consider the evidence de novo, without reference to an earlier Idaho district court decision against allowing the shipments.

He expressed concern about whether or not ITD’s regulatory commitment to placing a primary emphasis on public safety and convenience was being met, or had been overshadowed by what the agency called a need to balance various concerns. He also said he would have to resolve the issues of whether delays of 10 or 15 minutes are allowed by ITD regulations, and of what is legally meant by the term “delay.”

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19 comments

  1. Head em up! Move em out! Rawhide!
    Now let’s see if engineering and reality coincide!
    Or if NIMBY Ideology has been taking us for a ride!

  2. This is probably more interesting than the actual testimony.
    I just wonder if there’s a planned “park-in” — you know, various abandoned Subarus poured full of concrete.
    Good job, Steve.

  3. I hope you’re right Steve; but my money is on the immense wealth of the oil industry. I suspect their money has greased the skids from Lewiston all the way to the Alberta oilfields…

  4. This legal skirmish is just one of several that will happen in Montana and Idaho. The Lochsa River and the historic nature of the corridor must (and will) be protected. These megaloads will never roll on these highways.

    The good citizens of Montana and Wyoming will continue to find technical and societal problems with the environmental reviews, which were done very haphazardly.

    Conoco might as well pack up those megaloads, ship them back down the Columbia River, and head down to Houston or New Orleans to get their loads to Billings. that’s the way it’s always been done.

    -Jon Cheever

  5. As a matter of fact, the entire U.S. is such a “historic” country that we shouldn’t allow any commerce or industry to sully any roads or rivers in the U.S.

  6. Would the U. S. had been far more selective over the years…

  7. Perhaps this was not the venue to bring up Plan B :
    Was Conoco Phillips and/or their subcontractors ever asked if there was an alternative route and logistical plan ? Perhaps a scheme to barge them up the St. Lawrence Seaway to the port of Thunder Bay on Lake Superior and overland from there , which would make this an All- Canada Solution to what should be an All- Canada Problem.?

    Or asked another way : Were these particular petromechanical units designed to functionally fit the parameters of the Hwy 12 road haul and downrange legs , and only that route is viable, or was their transportation treated as a given and an Interstate Commerce ” right of passage” ? I’m not clear on that.

  8. “All Canada solution to an all Canada Problem” ? That’s kind of silly, because Canada and the U.S. are joined at the hip economically. And anyway I thought the equipment was headed for Billings, Montana. What kind of isolationist, liberal hill billies are hiding out on highway 12? Couldn’t be very many of them because Idaho County votes reliably conservative like most of the rest of Idaho and conservatives usually support commerce and industry.

  9. MICKEY- I was thinking ahead a little. If one load gets approved , they all travel. Conoco-Phillips is shipping 4 units to the Billings refinery, yet. But Exxon—or rather its Canadian subsidiary Imperial Exxon Canada—is planning on sending 200 or more megaloads to Fort MacMurray Alberta. And there are fifty more potential loads from a 3rd oil sands company , the state owned oil company of South Korea, that is also destined for Alberta ( which will ship the oil back to Korea but the environmental problems remain in Alberta).

    There is almost ZERO economic benefit from these loads to Montana, and almost none for Idaho once the loads leave the port of Lewiston ID, just most of the headaches and fallout along the way .

    Few if any jobs, little if any tax revenue. What’s the plus side of any of this ?

  10. The plus side is that Idaho should be taking this opportunity to send a message that it is open for business through the Port of Lewiston.

  11. The copper collar was designed to fit most of the states in the intermountain west–and now that part of Canada, as well. Colonies to the bone…

  12. “…Albrecht retorted, “These loads can accelerate and decelerate fast enough to put your head through the window.” He then added that the company’s goal was safety….”

    Nice. I have a cousin who moves oversized loads, and he has a can-do attitude, and lots of entertaining stories to tell.

    I have no question Emmert and friends can get their loads through, the questions are about what the costs will be, and who will bear them. If this first wave is approved, I hope somebody at the ITD (with a little help from citizen oversight) will be carefully measuring all of these things that are being swagged now.

    You don’t need an engineering background to check time and distance and arithmetic. An 0.82 tabulated as 8.2 might be inconsequential in one spot, or it could be enough to put your head through a window somewhere else.

    Just as lawyers do, engineers make mistakes.

  13. These rigs are a bad fit for Highway 12. By saying that I don’t mean there shouldn’t be any traffic or commerce on Highway 12 but there should be limits on it. In fact there are limits on the loads that can travel legally on Highway12 these Conoco loads -as well as the Imperial Oil loads -far exceed the legal limits and have not proven that they can meet the requirements for a special oversized permits.
    Not only will these loads shut down both sides of the highway but they will also cordone off all the turnouts & pullouts that residents, tourists use to access fishing and hunting and hiking. These same pullouts are used by semi-truckers to rest and by travelers to take a break from driving along a strecth with no services available.

  14. There is no other road that has the overhead clearance for the loads. All you have to do is build an overhead stucture of 14’6”³ and the megaloads will stop. The federal government built most of the hiways and they have rules to allow such loads
    check the history of the national highway system they were built for all parties.

  15. I still dont understand why they didn’t start in the tricities (Kennewick, etc), take 395 to I90. It’s 4 lane interstate the whole way, and only about 116 miles farther.

  16. One word: Overpasses.

    The loads are 35 feet tall ( and 30+ wide).

  17. Remember this is a US 12 not ID12 highway. I read in the lewiston tribute that conoco had shipped a megaload from Tulsa, OK. So If one state allows shipments all states have to because of the interstate commerce Act. THIS IS NOT STATE LAWS It is federal laws on US highways. Look for Conoco to get redress from Idaho and any parties that holds the loads. The timeclock is running. I know that this is the only way from the west coast to ship any load that size. Everyone else does too. remember all of those larges boats that came through in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Did you think they were on a scenic tour!!! If you will build it they will stop ( 14’6″ stucture with no bypass)

  18. News Flash: the state of Montana DEQ announced this afternoon ( 12-21-2010 ) that they are calling off the hauling of thousands of heavy truckloads of mine waste from Cooke City Montana through northwest Wyoming’s premier scenic highway , the Chief Joseph. They withdrew their haul plan because of new safety and road load constraints placed on the haul trucks by the Wyoming Department of Transportation and the Shoshone National Forest , who threatened a full NEPA analysis.

    Montana DEQ says they are redesigning the McLaren Mine Tailings reclamation project to negate any need to haul excess mine waste 320 miles one way from Cooke City around to Whitehall MT via the Chief Joseph Scenic Hwy , which even though it is a public thoroughfare it is a Wyoming state highway and administered as such. Wyoming could not really stop the hauls, but they could constrain them. And having done that , the project went away . No longer affordable, even with the price of gold at $ 1400 an ounce…the mine waste was going to be reprocessed at the Golden Sunlight Mine smelter in Whitehall to recover the latent gold.

    Dream on. It’s not always about the money. Chalk this one up to a bad case of gold fever and some bad judgment on the part of Montana DEQ.

    Not sure what this means for the Hwy 12 Megaloads , but it’s encouraging…

  19. That’s a real thrill! Little by little we’ll just shut down all hard rock mining and processing in the U.S. because it conflicts with our scenic sensibilities, and then we’ll be forced to buy all of our minerals overseas from countries who will eagerly use our lack of mineral production against us. Just another nail in the U.S.’s economic coffin.