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Consideration of an oil company's offer to bury power lines through 2 1/2 miles of U.S. Forest Service land along Lolo Creek will spill into the new year.

"The forest is currently predicting that an environmental analysis will need to be completed to address the issues the public have raised about the proposal," Chris Partyka, environmental coordinator for the Lolo National Forest, said this week.

A timeline for the analysis will be developed after the holidays, Partyka added in an e-mail message.

The Lolo solicited public comments on the project from late August through mid-October and got nearly 19,000 of them - 18,559 - via an "Action Alert" issued by the Natural Resource Defense Council. Fewer than 200 of the alerts had unique comments, Partyka said.

Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil has said it'll pay to bury the lines as part of its Kearl Module Transport Project, an unprecedented and yet-to-be-approved plan to haul 207 super-sized loads of processing equipment from Lewiston, Idaho, to the oil/tar sands of northeastern Alberta.

Missoula Electric Cooperative filed the application with the U.S. Forest Service on behalf of Imperial/Exxon as an existing special-use agreement. The electric company has already completed similar work along the highway, either raising power lines far above the modules' 30-foot-high profile or burying them along the north side of the highway.

Beyond the blizzard of NRDC "Action Alerts," the Lolo received 204 electronic and handwritten responses. Most came from the Missoula area or from other areas near the haul route in Idaho, Lolo and along the Blackfoot River, Partyka said.

Few respondents specifically addressed the direct effects of burying the power lines. Many registered votes for or against allowing the truck hauls or developing the Canadian oil sands, neither of which the Forest Service has control over.

"However, there were several issues raised concerning the impacts of truck haul on natural resources in the Lolo Creek drainage, including water quality, aesthetics and historical resources," Partyka said. "Several residents who rely on power service in the area emphasized the need for the power line burial to reduce power outages from heavy snows and storm events."

Others familiar with Lolo Creek "acknowledged the benefits on water quality, fisheries habitat, and aesthetics for the area," he said.

"Several felt that there were would be no impacts from either the power line burial or from the truck haul."

A "content analysis" of the public comments hasn't been completed. The Lolo is assessing the costs of conducting a formal review to determine which issues are relevant to the power line work. The content analysis will also help determine the level of environmental analysis that is needed.

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Partyka said that because of staffing limitations, the Lolo forest will be examining whether to drop other projects to complete the analysis, to use another Forest Service enterprise team, or to hire a contractor to conduct the EA.

Lolo forest supervisor Debbie Austin initially approved the burial last spring, but rescinded the decision in July after the Nez Perce Tribe raised concerns.

The proposed project is in the vicinity of the Lolo Trail National Historic Landmark, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.

A public comment period opened Aug. 26 and was slated to close Sept. 24. When it was found that the initial scoping letter contained an incorrect e-mail address, the deadline was extended through Oct. 15.

Montana's Department of Transportation has yet to release a final environmental assessment on the Kearl transport project. Imperial/Exxon has stockpiled 34 of the modules - most of which will be trucked in loads as large as 24 feet wide, 30 feet high and 210 feet long - at the Port of Lewiston.

Permits for a separate haul by ConocoPhillips - four pieces of giant coke drums bound from Lewiston to Billings - are still tied up in Idaho. A hearing judge in Boise is expected to render his decision before Christmas whether to recommend to the Idaho Transportation Department that they be issued or not.

ConocoPhillips' initial travel plan called for dropping overhanging lines along U.S. 12 in Montana to make room for the four loads, resulting in overnight power outages to residents. MDT did not respond to a request for an update on the Conoco permit applications.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

 

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