Megaload Magnetism


Last spring, when I saw my first megaload, I thought July 4th had come early. Football dads flipped burgers in the lot where the rig had parked. Hundreds of people crowded the ditches and dangled off guardrails to get a look at the machine. Newspapermen snapped cameras from the center of the road, and sheriffs, delighted at their sudden importance, shooed the men back into the crowd. The load, a generator bound for a new coal plant, wasn’t moving. But the people couldn’t turn away. It was big -- in fact, the biggest thing that had happened all year in that sleepy Appalachian town.

If our wide-eyed fascination with massive, destructive machines is not yet instinctive -- I blame Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel for my own closeted awe -- then it is, at least, infectious. This month, two big rigs bound along US 12 for a ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings, Mont., have barely made it off the front pages of the Missoulian. But their reception has been far from celebratory.  Before sunrise on March 10, as the first megaload pulled through Missoula, hundreds of activists gathered in the streets to protest. A handful of concerned citizens' groups formed quickly last year when ExxonMobile announced plans to truck 207 megaloads through Idaho and Montana to the Kearl Oil Sands development in Alberta. One group, All Against the Haul, even rushed to publish a book by Rick Bass and David James Duncan, titled The Heart of the Monster. (Read the review in Orion Magazine.)

Progress across the state has been slow for the shipments. They began their overland route from Idaho's Port of Lewiston but were delayed due to hard snow, thawing ground and inconvenient laws of physics. One rig took nearly an hour to bend around a twist in the road. This week, it took two nights for the shipments to make 20 miles through Deep Creek Canyon in the Big Belt Mountains.

But it's not just the sheer size of the shipments that has inspired awe and outrage. Highway 12 skirts the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers, and conservationists -- anglers and hunters among them -- worry ExxonMobile's shipments will turn a federally-protected corridor into a permanent route for big-scale, commercial trucking, since the company plans to renovate the highway to improve its hauling capacity. Opponents have also asked, who will pay for road and infrastructure repairs once the shipments have made it to Canada? Even Tea Partiers are angry that the project could infringe on county and state rights. And as Annick Smith pointed out in her op-ed last November, Montana will see very little benefit.

Earlier this month, Idaho Rivers United sued the U.S. Forest Service for allowing the Idaho Transportation Department to grant ExxonMobile its trucking permit. The group asked a federal judge to block the shipment plans -- hauling along Highway 12, they said, is a threat to the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers, some of the first to be protected under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Now state and federal courts have a handful of related cases on their docket. But even if the courts move slower than the big rigs -- and that's quite possible -- we'll certainly have a spectacle in the meantime.

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is an HCN intern.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user, Russell Reno.

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