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MISSOULA — On Tuesday night, ConocoPhillips and its moving company, Emmert International of Clackamas, Ore., will start moving the first of four megaloads of coke drums bound for Billings from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho.

"We're going to take the first shipment starting the first of February," Bill Stephens, a spokesman for ConocoPhillips, said Friday. "It'll take four nights to get to Montana, and we'll park it just over the border. When that one crosses the border, the two of them will go in tandem across Montana."

The plan is for Emmert to reach Billings with the first two loads in late February, disassemble the transporter, truck it back to Lewiston and reassemble it at the port. Mark Hefty, development manager for Emmert, said the final two loads will follow in similar fashion in late March and April.

The company figures the 14-night Montana leg from Lolo Pass to Billings won't start until around Feb. 10, a Thursday. While there's a 7-1/2-hour travel window from 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. in Idaho, Montana's Department of Transportation has limited the moves to six hours, from midnight to 6 a.m.

The Conoco rigs can travel on weekend nights and holidays if conditions warrant. They'll be parked at roadside turnouts during the day, and probably some nights.

"They agree that safety's more important than the day you move it," MDT director Jim Lynch said. "We're interested not only in the safety of the rigs that are moving down the roadway, but what are the conditions for the motorists that are traveling on the roadway? We want to make sure that we're not creating an unsafe environment for them as well."

Emmert's transportation plan for Montana designates the first layovers at an old weigh scale between Lolo and Missoula; the second at the Town Pump truck plaza in Milltown; the third at a truck scale west of Drummond on Interstate 90; and the fourth at a gravel pull-off at Avon in the Little Blackfoot Valley, before crossing MacDonald Pass to Helena.

"Those could vary. We're not necessarily committed to going to a specific parking spot," said Conoco spokesman Bill Phillips. "Weather conditions may require that they not go as far, or maybe things go smooth and they'll go farther."

An unusual if not unprecedented feature of the move will be the Montana Highway Patrol's presence throughout. There'll be a trooper in front and one in back of the two-rig convoys all the way across Montana.

"It'll primarily be guys that are on their days off, working overtime shifts that (Emmert) has hired," said Tom Butler, operations commander for MHP in Helena. "Blue lights and uniforms seem to make a lot more difference in the driving behavior of people around these types of events than all the traffic control vehicles you put in front of them with amber lights."

The Highway Patrol has contracted out its services in the past for house moves and movie shoots.

"To have a contract and assist somebody of this nature is not unusual," Butler said. "I've been on patrol for 19 years, and I don't recall something of this size moving across the state for this distance."

 

Maybe you've seen photos of the things. A lot of people have snapped pictures as the Conoco coke drums sat, big as day, in a storage lot at the Port of Lewiston. Some, but not many, have captured the immensity of the reddish, barrel-shaped halves of coke drums fabricated in Japan that Conoco will use in a $50 million upgrade of its Billings refinery.

Counting the specially made transporters they'll ride in, they're 29 feet wide, 28 feet high and 226 feet long. Each load weighs approximately 300 tons. To meet state regulations, that weight will be dispersed over 24 axles and 96 wheels.

They're too high to fit under interstate overpasses, so wide they'll hang three feet and more over the fog lines of some highways, so long they'll literally have to be walked around tight turns along the Lochsa River, at the junction of highways 12 and 93 in Lolo, through the side streets of Helena and Billings.

The oil drums don't sit on a trailer so much as inside a system of beams that sit on dollies, Hefty said. The dollies are connected by push and pull bars. On the tightest corners, workers walking on the roadway will guide the dollies, each of which also has an independent hydraulic jack built inside it.

There'll be push and pull tractor trailers, civilian escorts, flaggers and emergency medical personnel traveling along. Utility crews will man parts of the route to lower or raise low-hanging lines and traffic signals. Throw in the state troopers and the entourage will consist of some 30 people and more than a dozen vehicles.

In Idaho, traffic can legally be held up for no more than 15 minutes. In Montana, the maximum is 10 minutes.

Stephens said his company has been working on the travel plan for more than three years in anticipation of the refinery upgrade. The plan they developed is more than 700 pages long.

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Still, it's been a rough road. When opponents in Idaho opted last week not to pursue further legal appeals, it seemed to end a series of delays that refinery supervisor Steven Steach testified in November had already cost the company $2.5 million.

ConocoPhilllips and Emmert wanted to start the moves last June. They paid an Idaho construction company roughly $340,000 to accelerate construction on the Arrow Bridge outside of Lewiston — only to run into legal barriers thrown up by Linwood Laughy and his wife, Karen "Borg" Hendrickson, as well as Peter Grubb, who live and/or run businesses on the Middle Fork of the Clearwater west of Kooskia, Idaho.

Represented by Boise-based Advocates for the West, and later joined by 10 other interveners, they took the Idaho Transportation Department to court, maintaining that the department wasn't doing right by the residents of the state by allowing the first of a parade of oversized loads attracted to this new route over the Rocky Mountains to proceed.

In Idaho, the path follows, among other things, a federally established Wild and Scenic River and National Scenic Byway up the Clearwater and Lochsa river corridors.

In a statement Thursday, Laughy said the growing roster of foes to the loads will monitor the progress of the coke drums but won't block or disrupt the megaloads.

"We think it is important for local residents to understand exactly how massive these shipments are and what their impacts may be for traffic and business on Highway 12. But we do not suggest that anyone attempt to interfere with them," Laughy said.

Opponents organizing on the Montana side also plan nonconfrontational protests, and will do their part to monitor the loads — videotaping, writing and blogging — from Milepost 126 in Idaho through Missoula. Several drove to Lewiston on Saturday to take part in a rally there on the Memorial Bridge.

"We'll have a demonstration or rally in Lolo whenever the loads happen to be sitting there, and we expect hundreds of people to be there," Zack Porter of All Against the Haul said. "We're also planning First Friday activities next week (in Missoula,) just getting the word out — handing out bumper stickers and painting people's faces with tire tracks, letting everyone know we don't want to be run over by big oil."

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