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No matter what an Idaho judge decides Tuesday, Montana isn't ready to give a green light to the shipment of four massive loads of oil refinery equipment bound from the Port of Lewiston to Billings.

"No, not this quickly," Jim Lynch, director of the Montana Department of Transportation, said Monday. "We're still working through some issues that we need to get resolved with Conoco."

Likewise, Lynch added, "If we got to the point where it looked like we could issue permits, we wouldn't until they actually had the permits from Idaho to be at Lolo Pass."

Idaho District Judge John Bradbury heard more than two hours of testimony in Lewiston on Monday in a lawsuit seeking to permanently block the shipments. The Lewiston Tribune reported that Bradbury intends to review arguments and issue a ruling by noon Tuesday.

The Idaho Transportation Department issued permits for the loads to be transported along U.S. Highway 12 in northern Idaho to Lolo Pass, but Bradbury put a hold on the shipments last week after three residents of Highway 12 in Idaho filed suit.

Bradbury first slated an injunction hearing for Friday in Grangeville, but moved it to Monday in Lewiston after opening it up to ConocoPhillips. The oil company, the Idaho Transportation Department and representatives of Advocates of the West testified. The latter claim the shipments would threaten public safety, pose a risk to the pristine corridor and hurt the region's tourism industry.

ConocoPhillips has been paying to store the coke drums at the Port of Lewiston, near the junction of the Clearwater and Snake rivers in Idaho, since mid-May. Manufactured in Japan, the drums are central to a multimillion-dollar upgrade at the Conoco refinery in Billings.

While reports differ as to their size, the loads are nearly 30 feet high when on pull trucks, weigh more than 300 tons, and they're wider than most two-lane highways.

They'll require the dropping of power lines that haven't already been raised or buried for a separate, more controversial venture: Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's Kearl Module Transport Project, which entails the shipment of 207 super-sized loads bound for the Kearl tar sands fields in northeastern Alberta, Canada.

The Kearl project was subjected in Montana to an environmental assessment. Neither project has passed MDT muster yet.

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Lynch said Monday he doesn't expect to have a decision on the Kearl project before the end of August.

"If I did have one before that I'd certainly let you know," he said.

The Transportation Department will reach one of three conclusions: to issue Imperial/Exxon the permits it seeks, to require a revision of the environmental assessment, or to require a full environmental impact study. A number of entities ranging from the Missoula County commissioners to a newly formed coalition called All Against the Haul have called for the latter option.

Reports that the environmental assessment would be completed by Aug. 15 stemmed from a meeting Lynch had Aug. 3 in Helena with the Legislature's Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee.

"What was raised ... was that Exxon hoped to have it resolved by the middle of August and that we were working through the process, and it seemed like we could be very close to that," Lynch said. "But we never said when it

was actually going to happen."

He said there have been no delays in the Kearl assessment, which MDT says included 7,200 public comments, roughly 6,600 which came in a mass e-mail from the Natural Resources Defense Council and temporarily overloaded the department's e-mail capacity. Nearly 300 more were identical postcards from the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition.

The NRDC says it relayed many more comments - nearly 26,000 of them from around the world - in bulk e-mail form on May 11, three days before the comment deadline. Not all were identical, said NRDC spokesman Josh Mogerman, who claims they were ignored by the department.

"I don't think it's taken any longer than we originally expected," Lynch said. "There are just a lot of comments, and even though a lot of the comments are the same, we just can't say they're all the same. We have to go through the comments and make that determination, and determine how many different comments there were, and then how do we answer those comments or how does Exxon handle those comments."

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As proposed in plans filed with both state transportation departments, all truck shipments through Idaho and western Montana will move at night. The ConocoPhillips hauls to Billings will take four nights to get from Lewiston to Montana, the Imperial/Exxon loads, three.

While many view the ConocoPhillips shipments as "test runs" for the Kearl project, Lynch stressed the two projects are independent of each other.

They'll follow the same route on U.S. Highway 12 over Lolo Pass and through Missoula on Reserve Street to Bonner on Interstate 90. There the paths will diverge.

The 207 Imperial/Exxon loads will head up the Blackfoot Valley on U.S. Highway 200. ConocoPhillips's four loads will be trucked up the Clark Fork Valley to Garrison, then over MacDonald Pass to Helena, Townsend, Harlowton, Lewistown, Roundup, Lavina and into Billings.

The proposed route east of Missoula follows a frontage road through Piltzville and Turah before regaining Interstate 90 at Clinton. The overpass interchange there has been closed for construction for much of the past seven weeks.

"They'll have to wait until that bridge is open," Lynch said.

The project is scheduled to be completed and the overpass open to two-way traffic on Aug. 31, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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