JOHN DAY – Industrial hauler Omega Morgan, at the heart of a controversial “megaload” project in Idaho, is eyeing U.S. Highway 395 through Eastern Oregon as a possible route for at least three oversized shipments, starting in late November.
Crews were in John Day, Mt. Vernon and other sites along the highway last week, measuring intersections and checking power line locations to see how the route might work.
Oregon Department of Transportation officials said the Hillsboro-based company, which ships massive equipment for General Electric, first contacted the state about the possibility of using Highway 395 at the beginning of October. Company representatives then met with ODOT officials in Pendleton on Oct. 21.
“We haven’t issued a permit,” said Ace Clark, assistant district manager for ODOT’s District 12. “First they have to come up with a plan that shows what they’re going to do.”
He said the company needs to provide details for traffic control and how it would handle emergencies or breakdowns along the route – a traverse of the state from the Port of Umatilla to Stanfield and via Interstate 84 to Pendleton, south on Highway 395 through Grant County to Burns, and U.S. Highway 95 to Burns Junction and Nevada.
Clark said the company is expected to get back to ODOT soon, possibly this week.
Clark said the shipments would be large enough to require closure of the highway in stages as the load moves along, and the company plans to move the load at night to minimize traffic disruption. He said ODOT would require that traffic delays be limited to 20 minutes.
The company said it would pay for any highway modifications or relocation of power lines.
The exact dimensions of the loads and the content would be detailed in the permitting process. An Omega Morgan spokeswoman said the company doesn’t comment on the products or plans of its client, GE.
Last summer, an Omega Morgan shipment headed through northern Idaho to the tar sands oil project in Canada ran into protests and legal challenges from the Nez Perce Tribe and environmental advocates. In September, a federal judge granted an injunction blocking such transports on Highway 12, along the federal Wild and Scenic River corridor, pending further study.
The load at issue in that case was a 21-foot-wide, 255-foot-long evaporator weighing 644,000 pounds, according to news reports.
A GE spokeswoman said last week she had no specifics on the proposal for the Oregon route, but she was emphatic that the loads would not be as large as the ones in Idaho.
“They can’t be,” said LuJean Smith, global communication leader for GE Water & Power, adding the Idaho corridor “was the only route we could find for loads of that size.”
Local and state officials also said they had been told the loads would be headed south on Highway 395 through Oregon to Nevada, not north to Canada.
Jim Horan, spokesman for Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative, said Omega Morgan identified some work to be done before it could use the route to haul what was described only as “large vessels.”
He said the hauler wants all utility lines to be at least 19 feet high – some are already that high, but some stretches are only at 16 feet – and a couple of utility poles would have to be relocated at tight turns.
“Of course, they would have to pay for it,” Horan added.
The prospect of superloads moving through Grant County surprised local officials. For some, the first hint was the presence of crews analyzing the major intersections in John Day and Mt. Vernon.
John Day City Manager Peggy Gray said she first became aware of the surveying when an OTEC representative contacted her about possibly needing to move a power pole at the city’s stoplight intersection.
The advance crews and their casual talk about moving power lines drew the attention of Sally Bartlett, the county’s economic development coordinator, who contacted Scott Fairley, an aide to Gov. John Kitzhaber, to see what he knew.
In the email conversation that ensued, the manager of ODOT’s District 12 raised the specter of Highway 395 as more than a just a three-load deal.
“The company has now determined to quit fighting the (Idaho) injunction, so it is possible/likely that this could become their route for more than just this three loads,” wrote Marilyn Holt.
County Judge Scott Myers said he is asking for more information about the proposals, and he questioned why ODOT didn’t give the county a heads-up and a chance to voice concerns.