MISSOULA — A funny thing happened Sunday and Monday as legal minds sparred over the next moves in the ConocoPhillips oil-drum shipment saga:
Things started popping at the Port of Lewiston, where the four Billings-bound megaloads have been sitting since May.
Witnesses said semi-trailers have been attached to two of the loads, and the Lewiston Tribune reported crews were working Monday atop the large transport assemblies emblazoned with the Emmert International logo.
Emmert is the company charged with a 700-mile transport from Lewiston, over Lolo Pass to Missoula and Interstate 90, then through central Montana to Conoco's refinery in Billings.
“There certainly was a flurry of activity, and it looked like Emmert was getting ready to move,” said Laird Lucas, the executive director of Advocates for the West who's leading the legal fight against the oversized shipments.
Despite reports that the hauls would begin as early as Monday night, those involved in various stages of the move denied a start was imminent.
“We're still examining how to move forward,” spokesman Adam Rush of the Idaho Transportation Department said.
“Really, there's nothing going on,” said David Doeringsfeld, manager of the Port of Lewiston. “I'm not aware of any permits that have been issued, nor any plans that have been made.”
A call to ConocoPhillips was not immediately returned. The Lewiston Tribune quoted spokesman John Roper in Houston as saying the company remains “in a wait-and-see mode.”
Lucas said he's heard “nothing hard and concrete other than (ITDs) counsel has assured us they're not going to pull some kind of midnight surprise.”
Idaho and Montana transportation departments have both said they required the moving companies to give plenty of advance notice, through newspapers and other media, when the hauls are to begin. In its initial application for a 32-J oversized permit, filed in April, ConocoPhillips proposed the first two shipments to Billings to begin June 1, 2010, and the second two to be completed by Aug. 8.
The Idaho Transportation Department is still working on its response to a decision by the Idaho Supreme Court last Monday. The court cast the burden of permitting the loads out of the court system and back on ITD's shoulders.
Laird said his team spent Sunday preparing to go to court to force the transportation department to hold a contested case hearing.
“Then this morning their counsel indicated to us they were heading down that path, so we're not running into court,” he said.
Transportation officials deny the connection, but many see the decision on the Conoco loads as a harbinger to a much more extensive proposal by another oil giant. ExxonMobil has already begun stockpiling at the Port of Lewiston the first of more than 200 modules it wants to truck to the Kearl oil sands in northeastern Alberta.
The four ConocoPhillips loads dwarf the semi-tractors that will pull them through the mountains once transportation departments in Idaho and Montana give the go-ahead.
They'll travel at night along U.S. Highway 12 and stop the fourth night just inside the Montana-Idaho border on Lolo Pass, 174 miles from Lewiston.
Linwood Laughy of Kooskia, who is part of the lawsuit to prevent the hauls, said Conoco's plan calls for the three stops in Idaho at mile marker 39 on the western edge of Orofino; mile marker 73 near Kooskia; and mile marker 139, 23 miles west of the Powell Ranger Station and Lochsa Lodge.