BUTTE – Breathe deep.

That's what a crew of Montana Resource drivers will likely do Thursday and Friday when they climb into two new haul trucks which cost $3.8 million each. The trucks are part of a $16.2 million equipment upgrade at Montana Resources this year. 

The Anaconda Co. sold the Berkeley Pit and the mine operation to Atlantic Richfield Co. in 1977. Montana Resources bought the Continental Pit and the mining operation from Arco in late 1985.

The truck cabs smell like the inside of a new car. Plastic covers the black seats. The specifications are taped to the driver's side window. The windshields are crystal clear. You can sit back, adjust the seat, breathe in the new-car smell, and look out at the blue sky, watching clouds pass by. There isn't a speck of dirt or dust anywhere.

That, of course, will change soon. 

Just ask Ed Stefalo, 50, one of Montana Resources' 36 truck drivers. Stefalo drives Truck 507.

Although Stefalo keeps the cab of his truck clean, it smells like dust. It looks permanently dusty. The ladder and the steps that lead up to his cab are caked in mud.

Stefalo, like all the drivers at MR, works 12-hour shifts. He drives enough hours in one day to make a one-way trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, and make a quick stop for a cheeseburger on the road.

Like every driver at MR, Stefalo carries roughly between 4,800 to 5,520 tons of dirt and rock each shift over unpaved roads. His truck uses 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day. The tires cost $50,000 each.

The new trucks will be no different. The drivers of Truck 513 and Truck 514 will haul approximately 240 tons, carrying the loads either to the crusher or to the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond dam, about 20 to 23 times each shift.

The new vehicles can travel no faster than 30 mph, Travis Chiotti, mine supervisor said. When traveling uphill, the driver can expect to roll along at about 8 mph with a heavy load of dirt in the bed.

One new feature the drivers will find when they climb in Thursday and Friday will be a different brake system. The new brakes are hydraulic instead of air brakes. Mike McGivern, safety manager for the mine, calls it a minor change but a more modern truck design.

Another new feature is a 360-degree sensor system that can alert the driver to objects he or she can't see.

Drivers are blind on the right side of the truck because the cab sits on the left-hand side.

Because of that, MR road regulations require that all drivers, including supervisors driving the mine's roads in company-owned suburbans, must drive on the left-hand side of the road, like the British.

Chiotti said the last time someone was killed in a collision with a haul truck at the mine was "back in the Anaconda days."

The new radar system will be able to detect movement near the truck, sound an alarm and a camera will show the driver what is moving close by. 

Although a collision causing a fatality hasn't happened in more than 30 years, Chiotti said the drivers do experience fender benders and sometimes slide off the road when the dirt roads turn slick.

The two new trucks are part of an upgrade to the fleet of 12. The oldest trucks in the fleet are water trucks that spray water along the dirt roads to keep the dust to a minimum.

Montana Resources plans to purchase two more haul trucks in 2016 and another two in 2017, McGivern said.

The haul trucks are so big, the two new ones were delivered in pieces on a semi truck. Workers spent more than two weeks putting them together on site. 

The current fleet of Caterpillar haul trucks is 10 years old. 

McGivern said "it was time" to get new trucks.

Trucks at MR are in operation for about 8,000 hours a year, Chiotti said. Trucks last about 100,000 hours, he said.

Like the older trucks, Truck 513 and 514 have some bounce to provide some give for the drivers riding on a bumpy road for 12 hours each day. Also like the older trucks, the new trucks have power windows, heat and air conditioning, power steering and automatic transmission with six gears.

A small computer inside the truck tells the driver how heavy a load he or she is carrying. The seat belt – with a buckle the size of a slice of bread – crosses the driver's lap.

All drivers have radios inside their cabs. Chiotti said MR encourages the drivers to listen to music, going so far as to enable hook up to satellite radio, or they can plug in an iPod to enjoy their own personal playlist.

"We encourage that to help keep them alert," Chiotti said.

The only thing the drivers can't do is text or use a cell phone while inside the cab.

But a radio inside each truck squawks constantly with chatter, such as, "coming up on your left." That's the only conversation the drivers have while inside their cabs.

Stefalo, who commutes to the Continental Pit mine from his home in Deer Lodge, is inside his haul truck by 7 a.m., when many of us haven't yet had our morning coffee.

The mine operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including Christmas and Thanksgiving. So some drivers drive for 12 hour shifts at night, but their work week is structured so that once month they get seven days off.

Who will be the lucky crew MR will assign to drive the two new-smelling trucks after training is over? Chiotti said management is leaving it up to the foreman to decide. Chiotti said MR wants to hold these new trucks to the highest standard of cleanliness and upkeep.

"We want guys who take good care of their trucks," Chiotti said. "You have to treat them with a lot of respect."

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