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Montana Department of Transportation OKs megaloads bound for Canada

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021011 exxon rigs 1

Some of Exxon Mobil's modules sit along the Clearwater River at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, in early February 2011. LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

Even as another oil giant moves the first of its four massive loads through the wilds of Idaho, Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil finally got the go-ahead this week to truck 207 massive loads of processing equipment through Montana to Canada.

After nearly nine months of work with Imperial/ExxonMobil on an environmental assessment, MDT director Jim Lynch signed a "Finding of No Significant Impact" for the Kearl Module Transportation Project on Monday.

The department released the FONSI on Thursday.

"We finally finished everything that we needed to get done," Lynch said Thursday. "There were a lot of issues that needed to be put together."

MDT made the five-volume, 1,028-page FONSI available on its website Thursday, as well as at 14 public libraries along the route, at the department's district offices in Missoula and Great Falls, and at MDT headquarters in Helena.

Volume III of the FONSI entails 405 pages of public comments and the oil company's responses.

"It's certainly a positive," Imperial spokesman Pius Rolheiser said. "Our primary goal has been to move the modules safely to their final destination in Alberta with minimal impact to the public.

"I think the issuance of the FONSI is a confirmation, I guess, in respect to our planning for the potential move through Montana."

Many of the so-called megaloads, fabricated in South Korea, are as wide as a two-lane highway, 26 feet high and well over 200 feet long counting push and pull trucks. Thirty-three of them, and one like-sized test validation module, sit at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, after traveling by ship across the Pacific Ocean and by barge up the Columbia and Snake rivers from the Port of Vancouver, Wash.

The plan is to truck them from the Port of Lewiston over U.S. Highway 12 to Lolo Pass and Montana, then through Missoula to Bonner and up Highway 200 over Rogers Pass. The loads will then pass through Augusta and Choteau along the Rocky Mountain Front before turning east and then north to the Port of Sweetgrass.

The project has met with massive protests in some sectors of Idaho and in the Missoula area, protests that aren't likely to abate after MDT's go-ahead.

"I'm not surprised in the slightest, especially given the ghost FONSI that we all saw several months ago," said Zack Porter of Missoula, spokesman for All Against the Haul, which formed in opposition to various megaload proposals over Highway 12.

"This is exactly what we expected. It was just a matter of when."

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A reporter in Oregon retrieved a preliminary FONSI from the internet last summer that seemed to show MDT's inclination to issue a finding of no significant impact. Lynch said at the time the document carried no weight, and a number of details still had to be worked out.

Imperial/Exxon must still build turnouts and complete the utility work it promised to do in the environmental assessment before it can apply for permits.

Rolheiser said the company will first wait for the permitting process to be worked out in Idaho, which is almost certain to involve a contested-case hearing that opponents there have promised.

"The issuance of the FONSI puts Imperial Oil in position to apply for the 32-J permits that we need in Montana," he said. "But until we have some resolution from the ITD, it's difficult to talk in any definitive terms about scheduling any more work in Montana."

Lynch said among the last details to be worked out by Imperial/Exxon and its international transport company, Mammoet, was a more specific response to emergencies along the Montana route.

The movers agreed to restore at least one-way traffic within four hours of the emergency and come up with plan to permanently restore it on the roadway, "even if that means they have to dismantle the pieces of equipment," Lynch said.

Opponents widely panned the economic analysis of the draft EA, which Porter said was "woefully inadequate and gave lip service to the economic impact impacts that will be experienced by businesses and residents and taxpayers of Montana."

He hadn't seen the changes made in that part of the document.

"Our next step is to review the document carefully," Porter said. "We're leaving all options on the table and we'll go from there."

There were several calls throughout the environmental assessment process for a more extensive environmental impact study.

Lynch said he felt comfortable the guidelines of the Montana Environmental Policy Act were complied with.

"With the amount of work (Imperial and Mammoet) did on the EA, and the fact that all of the impacts they addressed are within the existing state right of way that had already had an environmental document, we just didn't feel it would push it to an EIS," he said.

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

 

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