COEUR d'ALENE - While state officials call a plan allowing three megaloads to pass through the area with a temporary Interstate 90 on-ramp "pretty routine," critics remain skeptical.
The Idaho Transportation Department held an open house Thursday to accept comments on the proposal of Mammoet USA South, Inc., to transport three megaloads of oil refinery equipment through the Coeur d'Alene area starting as soon as January.
Each load - destined for the Calumet Refinery in Great Falls, Mont. - is 472 feet long, 27 feet wide, 16 feet tall and weighs 1.6 million pounds.
Shipments would exit I-90 at the Sherman Avenue interchange, travel 5.5 miles along east Coeur d'Alene Lake Drive (a state highway), pass under the freeway overpass west of Higgens Point and re-enter I-90 at the temporary on-ramp to bypass the Veterans Memorial Bridge.
"The Veterans Memorial Bridge (on I-90) isn't approved to transport an equipment shipment of this weight," said Adam Rush, ITD's public involvement coordinator, referring to why the on-ramp is needed.
Jason Minzghor, ITD operations manager, said the proposal is "pretty routine" and the state agency doesn't have any concerns.
"We were more concerned about the Veterans Memorial Bridge," he said. "We want to protect that resource."
About 75 people attended the open house as reactions to the plan were mixed.
"I'm concerned that this will become the default megaload route through North Idaho," said Janet Torline, who lives in the Harrison area.
Torline, who lives along Highway 97, also fears that, if an emergency arises in the Harrison or Wolf Lodge areas when I-90 is closed or there are delays, that could have a negative effect on public safety.
Each shipment would close I-90 at the on-ramp at night for about 10 minutes, transportation officials said. Single-lane closures to remove concrete barriers on the freeway for the on-ramp would be two hours.
"The lane and road closures would be during non-peak times," Minzghor said.
The only access to Lou Teyler's home on Potlatch Hill is east Coeur d'Alene Lake Drive. She said she came to the open house with concerns, but left relieved with answers from Mammoet rep Chip Kachel.
Teyler was particularly pleased to learn that the loads are expected to pass through between midnight and 3 a.m. and that a lane on east Coeur d'Alene Lake Drive will be left open.
"They're planning things out to minimize the impact - to the extent that I'm leaving feeling better about things," she said.
Teyler said there are many reasons to oppose the proposal, but was satisfied with the positives such as creating jobs and being a good neighbor.
"We're helping a neighboring state," she said.
Kevin Flynn, organizer of the Northwest Regional Organizing Coalition, wanted to ensure the workers on the project will be paid fair wages.
"This is a good thing because it creates jobs, but I'm also here to make sure flaggers are paid according to the area's standards," Flynn said.
Adrienne Cronebaugh, executive director of the Coeur d'Alene-based Kootenai Environmental Alliance, said she has lingering concerns.
She said it could lead to more megaload shipments along the lake road and the massive loads can create a traffic nightmare if they crash. A megaload recently tipped over in the Portland area, causing traffic snarls.
"Accidents happen," she said. "If this were to happen along east Coeur d'Alene Lake Drive, there is no detour for residents."
Cronebaugh said she's also concerned about unkept promises as some megaloads have had more delays than what was originally stated.
The temporary on-ramp, which would be on public right of way and built with gravel, would involve also removing concrete center barriers on the freeway. The on-ramp would travel a short distance in the westbound lanes before transitioning into the eastbound lanes.
Minzghor said the shipments will pass through the area at night, going between 30 and 35 mph.
Kachel said if there's any road damage caused by the megaloads, Mammoet would foot all of the repair bill.
Minzghor said that while the loads would be as heavy as he can remember to pass through this area, ITD isn't worried about road damage.
Cronebaugh isn't so confident.
"Regardless of (ITD) dismissing concerns about damaging the road, it is still possible and probable with multiple 1.6 million-pound loads passing through ... even if (the damage) isn't initially visible," she said.
Coeur d'Alene attorney Scott Reed, who has a history of filing suits against ITD on environmental grounds, submitted comments to the state on the latest proposal. He said Wolf Lodge Bay, where kokanee spawn and attract eagles each winter, is a special place that needs to be protected.
"The bank into the lake is stable enough for the light cars on the pavement above," Reed wrote. "What ITD is considering will change that situation drastically."
The shipments would come from Lewiston via U.S. 95. The equipment will be used to create low sulfur diesel fuel to meet EPA clean air standards. Kachel said the Montana refinery doesn't have fabrication capabilities to build the equipment at its site, so it must be transported.
The shipments would be three to four weeks apart.
Minzghor said several over-sized loads have been transported through Coeur d'Alene in recent years, including wind turbines that are 110 feet long.
"What's unusual is the weight of these loads," he said. "This is the first time that we've had to re-route (the loads). If it was a little lighter, they could go over the Veterans Bridge."
Minzghor said the only reason the public meeting was held is because of the temporary on-ramp that's needed.
"Any time there's access to the freeway from a point that's not already permitted, we seek public comment," he said.
Megaloads through Idaho have drawn protests and lawsuits in recent years. In some cases, protesters, including those in Coeur d'Alene and east of Lewiston, have been arrested.
ITD is accepting comments on the proposal through Dec. 29. The agency is expected to make a decision on whether to issue permits for the loads in early January.
• How to comment
Those wishing to comment on Mammoet USA South's proposal to create a temporary on-ramp of Interstate 90 for three megaloads to pass through the Coeur d'Alene area should respond to the Idaho Transportation Department by Dec. 29 by email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, fax to 772-1203 or mail to 600 W. Prairie Ave., Coeur d'Alene, ID 83815.