Idaho's Port of Lewiston
by Kim Briggeman
PORT OF LEWISTON, Idaho - The sounds of silence are amplified by size here. The afternoon sun was working its way into the 90s on Tuesday as Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash., shimmered across the river.
That river is the final throes of the Clearwater, before it's consumed by the epic Snake River less than a mile below. It's 500 yards wide at the upper reaches of slack water from the Lower Granite Dam, 39 miles downstream.
The water slipped quietly past the port's towering grain elevators and immense warehouses. A steamy asphalt storage yard was mostly empty of the rainbow of 20- and 40-foot containers used by shipping companies to send peas, lentils and paper products to the Pacific Ocean, 465 miles and eight dams downstream.
This was a slow time, said Dave Doeringsfeld, the port manager. Things will pick up in a month and a half, when the harvest starts coming in, but the port is not booming.
"Last year we moved the smallest number of containers out of here that we've moved since the early '80s," Doeringsfeld said. "The national economy's down. ... There are a lot of reasons for it."
A genial South Dakota native, Doeringsfeld has headed the port for 16 years. He works under a three-member port commission and heads a staff of just five, three of them experienced dock workers. Those ranks were reduced a week ago when one man suffered a heart attack.
The Port of Lewiston has its distinctions. It's the West's most inland port, and Idaho's only seaport. Lately it has become a focus of the contention swirling around its role as a jumping-off point for oversized highway shipments through the Rocky Mountains to Montana and points north and east.
According to its website, the port has been working since July 2008 with U.S. and Canadian companies and logistics firms to ship oversized cargo up the Columbia-Snake River Corridor.
"This oversized cargo has final destinations that include refinery equipment to the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada, wind-powered generators into the U.S. Midwest and coal-fired electrical generation plants into Wyoming," the website said in touting the port's roll-on/roll-off capabilities.
An application filed last year by the Idaho Transportation Department and Port of Lewiston requested $11.4 million in federal stimulus funds for extension of the port's dock and repairs to the state highway that runs by it.
Under the heading "Innovation," the grant application described the Kearl Module Transport Project proposed by Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil, in which supersized modules would be transported up the river system by barge, "then trucked from the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley along U.S. Highway 12 to Missoula where they would then proceed north to Alberta, Canada."
"If one oil company is successful with this alternate transportation route, many other companies will follow their lead," the clause concluded. "The port dock will reduce transportation time and costs for the American-based oil companies."
The report indicated partnerships and endorsements from Idaho's Department of Commerce, U.S. Sen. Michael Crapo of Idaho, Nez Perce County, the Idaho grain, wheat and barley commissions, Potlatch Corp. and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter.
Behind the wheel on a drive through the port, Doeringsfeld pointed out a fleet of 500 Swift Transportation trucks, an ice arena, a small winery, a metal fabricating shop, a recycling center and a maker of parts for AR-15 semi-automatic rifles - all port tenants. Two grain producers manage the elevators and transport operations.
His job and the port's primary mission, he said, is to encourage economic growth in Nez Perce County and the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley in order to create jobs.
"A lot of what the Port of Lewiston does is provide infrastructure," he said. "We put in street, water, sewer, and either lease or sell to businesses that are looking to create jobs."
But these are not easy times for economic stimulation, neither here nor at the two Washington ports nearby. The Port of Clarkston is barely a mile away at the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake rivers. The Port of Wilma, one of three river stations overseen by the Port of Whitman County, is less than five miles away.
Doeringsfeld pulled up to the docks, where the crane operators were loading the Tuesday barge with containers bound for overseas. It was the only container barge scheduled for the week.
He stopped his car to give visitors a look at the port's recent main attractions. Sitting by themselves in a far section of the yard were two immense oil drums, each in halves for "easier" transport.
When loaded onto transporters, each load will be 29 feet wide, 26 feet high and weigh roughly 300 tons. It will stretch some 225 feet down roads that wind up the Clearwater and Lochsa valleys to the top of Lolo Pass and into Montana.
When resurfacing of the Arrow Bridge east of town is finished later in July, and when transportation departments in both Idaho and Montana issue the proper oversized load permits, the first two drums will be trucked to the ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings.
If all goes according to plan, the specially designed transporters, with 13 axles and 104 wheels each, will be sent back to Lewiston to tote the other loads over the mountains later this fall. It'll take four nights of hauling to get to the top of Lolo Pass, and more than two weeks to navigate a circuitous route to Billings, mostly on two-lane highways, since the drums won't fit under interstate overpasses.
There has been much furor over the impact and intent of Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's plan to ship 207 Korean-made modules of different shapes but similar dimensions through Idaho and Montana. But these four Billings-bound drums represent a more realistic future for oversized industrial cargo in the Rockies, Doeringsfeld said.
"I think this will be more of the norm - a couple of loads every six months or so," he said.
The drums, fabricated in Japan, made news when they arrived in May, perhaps in part because most barges reach these upriver ports empty. They were unloaded in the roll-on/roll-off fashion - the barge backing up perpendicular to the dock rather than pulling up alongside.
That's because the port's 250-ton Manitowoc lift cranes were no match for the behemoths, Doeringsfeld said.
For the ensuing month and more, until just a couple of weeks ago, a flurry of activity pervaded the port as workers and the Oregon-based transport company Emmert International readied the drums for transport that has since been delayed.
"There were 30 people in town, 15 welders and another 15 people from Emmert that were assembling this," said Doeringsfeld. "So that's 30 people for lodging. The welders were brought in, but they were still utilizing some of the local welding shops for supplies. So there was a substantial amount of goods and services that were utilized in the area."
Multiply it all by 50-fold or more if the ExxonMobil modules come up the river, said Debbie Snell.
"If the trade route is actually developed, it's a win-win for everyone in terms of economic development in rural areas," said Snell, properties and development manager for the Port of Whitman County in Washington. "I'm totally politics blind, but it's a huge piece of the economic puzzle for three states."
While ExxonMobil's transport plan in Idaho specifically begins at the Port of Lewiston, Doeringsfeld said no contract has yet been signed.
The modules could just as well be unloaded at the Port of Wilma, where the river's deeper but another state transportation department would have to get involved.
TGM, a private company that specializes in transfers at the Port of Wilma, already has experience with ExxonMobil, Imperial Oil and the Kearl oil sands.
Gaylord Newbry, a co-partner in TGM, visited the Alberta project as part of a yearlong project to transport a mammoth dragline from there to coal fields in Australia.
A year ago this week, a barge pushed off from Wilma with the entire dragline on deck.
"You know, it's funny, I moved 178 lowboys from Canada and nobody in Idaho or Montana or Washington said a word. Not one complaint," Newbry said. "We probably put $4 million into Lewiston, just because of trucks and people staying and buying gas."
Logging and grain trucks have long used the proposed corridor of Highway 12 over Lolo Pass and the Lochsa-Clearwater corridor.
"It drives me nuts when people say, ‘Oh, no, these terrible trailers,' " Newbry said. "Well, we had some big loads. They weren't quite as big as this, but that's what builds our roads, that's what builds our commerce."
The economic benefits of oversized cargo coming into the the ports aren't astronomical in themselves.
Doeringsfeld said it took 12 hours on May 17 to off-load the ConocoPhillips oil drums. Dockage fee is $1,500 each hour a barge is parked.
There's a minimal wharfage fee of $1.50 a ton, which amounted to a total of less than $3,000. Storage is $4,500 a month, so the oil company's bill at the Port of Lewiston is approaching $30,000.
That won't come close to balancing out what the port stands to lose when several locks downstream are closed next winter for repair. According to Doeringsfeld, in any other year he'd have to lay off his three experienced crane operators for the duration, from early December to mid-March.
"That's one of the reasons we're hopeful for these modules," he said. "The idea is to pre-position a lot of them before the closure. Imperial Oil will need security services, so we can keep our employees on the payroll."
The last word Newbry received at the Port of Wilma, ExxonMobil's modules were going through Lewiston. While he wouldn't mind the business, he said he's not upset.
"We're all in the same valley, the same small valley. It's our river system, it's viable. Why not bring the world through it?"
Port of Lewiston Facts and Figures by Staff, Missoulian, 7/10/10
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