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Missoula County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to file a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Transportation for "insufficient analysis of the effects of moving hundreds of oversized loads on Highways 12 and 200."

"I guess every time you stand in front of a big truck it's a gamble," commission Chairwoman Jean Curtiss said. "We were just trying to weigh whether it was our responsibility, and we decided it was."

The complaint will be filed in 4th District Court in Missoula, probably this week, according to deputy county attorney James McCubbin.

The county will be joined by three other plaintiffs - the National Wildlife Federation, the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Montana Environmental Information Center. Other groups may throw in as well, said Tom France, regional director for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula.

They'll seek an injunction to halt MDT-approved road improvements to be funded by Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil, including construction of turnouts and utility alterations on Missoula's Reserve Street.

The suit targets an environmental assessment and its finding of no significant impact, or FONSI, released last month by MDT for the Kearl Module Transportation Project.

The need to construct 53 new traffic-clearing pullouts and pave 22 others between Lolo Pass and the Port of Sweetgrass were motivating factors in the decision to require an environmental assessment.

The Kearl Module Transportation Project, engineered by Imperial Oil, a Canadian subsidiary of ExxonMobil Corp. and a major player in the oil sands fields of Alberta, would transport 207 "megaloads" of processing equipment at night through western Montana on Highways 12 and 200.

Even as MDT director Jim Lynch was signing the accepted EA on Feb. 7, Imperial/Exxon had begun preparations to reduce 33 modules stranded at the Port of Lewiston in Idaho. Last week, the oil company applied for permits in Idaho to take them on a route that would bypass Highway 12 and include Interstate 90.

Already the first dozen or more of another 60 modules have been shipped along an interstate corridor from Vancouver, Wash., to Montana's Port of Sweetgrass on I-90 and I-15.

"The (environmental assessment) is just so flawed," Curtiss said. "It says those loads can't be divided. They're being divided right now. It says the interstate system is not feasible. It is."

Curtiss and fellow Missoula commissioners Michele Landquist and Bill Carey sent a letter to MDT earlier this month requesting information about the changes in the Kearl project. Curtiss said Tuesday they've received no response.

"Commissioners agree(d) that transporting those loads on the interstate is more appropriate, and expressed their intention to pursue litigation if their information request was unanswered," a statement from the commission's office read.

On the commissioners' list of concerns are the "irreversible impacts" to the local tourism industry and to existing commercial activity, including agriculture and timber products; inadequate alternatives for emergency travel for responders and citizens; permanent adverse impacts to the "historic, environmental, and cultural corridors of the highways"; and environmental impacts on both Lolo Creek and the Blackfoot River.

"To me one of the biggest turning points in making this decision (to sue) is the fact that once this route's established, whether they say it's to be a permanent, high-wide corridor or not, it really is there," Curtiss said.

"Any future loads - and who knows what could be thought of to go through here next? - wouldn't have to meet some of the same scrutiny. They could say there are already turnouts. Those (signal lights on Reserve) already turn sideways. So the precedent has kind of been set."

That leaves the public out of any future process, she said.

"Sufficient analysis and inclusive public process for this corridor must be ensured today," the commissioners' statement read.

The effect on the local travel industry weighed heavily in the decision.

"You don't work for years and years to achieve what we've all achieved in the tourism and recreation dollars, the industry it's become, just to sell it to any company that wants to destroy that travel corridor," Landquist said. "People will not come."

Curtiss said it's the commissioners' job to ensure public health, welfare and safety of Missoula County.

That doesn't square with the travel plan, which calls for all moves to take place after midnight and before 6 a.m.

"Normally high-and-wide special permits are given for daytime use only, because the goal is, we want you to be able to see as well as possible," Curtiss said. "This one is just the absolute opposite. They're the biggest things we've hauled through here, and yet it's a night-time permit."

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

 

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