No plan for long-term megaload corridor

<p>The Omega Morgan megaload will remain in Pendleton until weather improves enough for it to continue south on Highway 395.</p>

Icy roads continue to hold up the first of three so-called “megaloads” in Eastern Oregon, where it remains stalled on Highway 395 just south of Pendleton.

Omega Morgan, the Hillsboro-based company hired to move the load, is waiting for weather to improve before starting the next leg of its trip. The massive shipment of oil refinery equipment is bound for the tar sands region of Alberta, Canada, but must first go south before it can head north.

The route was chosen as one of the few the load could physically clear, project manager Erik Zander said to the North East Area Commission on Transportation Thursday morning in La Grande.

The commission, composed of 18 voting members, represents Morrow, Baker, Union, Umatilla and Wallowa counties, as well as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. It provides a forum for local government and residents to discuss and coordinate transportation issues in northeast Oregon.

“This was the only route through Oregon, Washington and Canada that would work, height-wise,”?Zander said. “Our biggest issue is just waiting on the weather now.”

Approximately 20 people travel in a convoy with the megaload, Zander said, including utility workers, traffic control, emergency and Oregon Department of Transportation crews. Omega Morgan pays for pretty much everything — including ODOT?overtime, he said.

ODOT has permitted the megaload to drive only at night, and only when conditions are clear. Workers on the ground check weather reports every day, and decide each evening whether it is safe to go.

“We do our best to cut down on impact to the general public,”?Zander said.

Yet the megaloads haven’t escaped controversy. Climate activists and members of the local tribes have vehemently protested using Oregon as a route to the tar sands, which they argue contributes significantly to global warming. Three protesters were arrested in two nights trying to block the load in Umatilla, and actually succeeded in delaying its departure Sunday.

Numerous protesters were also arrested in August when a previous shipment ran through the Nez Perce Reservation and a federally designated scenic river corridor on U.S. Highway 12 in Idaho. A federal judge later ordered megaloads stop using the route.

That brings the next three scheduled shipments through Oregon, though Zander said it is unlikely they will use the area as a long-term industrial corridor.

“It doesn’t make good sense,” Zander said.

Members of the transportation commission asked few new questions, and nobody protested during the presentation. The project drew additional praise from Debra Dunn, president of the Oregon Trucking Association, who joined the meeting via teleconference.

“(Omega Morgan) meets the requirements to move the load and do it safely, because they’ve put together such a good plan,”?Dunn said. “It tells me the permitting process is working.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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