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Protesters rally against oil equipment trucking at Missoula MDT office

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In a classic example of asymmetrical conflict, protesters pedaled bicycles Thursday to rally against allowing gigantic truckloads of oilfield equipment on Montana highways.

About two dozen cyclists escorted a bike-pulled bed holding stand-ins for Montana Department of Transportation director Jim Lynch and the head of ExxonMobil Canada. The oil company seeks permission to haul 207 loads that are taller than a three-story building, as wide as a two-lane highway and 75 yards long. The so-called "high and wide corridor" would enter Montana at Lolo Pass.

John Rosette came dressed to impress, with a goatee beard similar to Lynch's to go with his jacket, tie and pajama bottoms.

"My role here is to represent the government," he said. "If you don't get out there and do something people notice, you never get your message across."

Rosette and another man who refused to give his name got to ride in the bed. They were eventually deposited before a cardboard judge's bench set up in front of the MDT Missoula office on West Broadway. About 60 people came to cheer and jeer the proceedings.

"We're putting Jim Lynch on trial for obstruction of climate justice," rally organizer Max Granger said. "I think the least they could do is sentence Jim Lynch to get out of bed with ExxonMobil."

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The protesters were equally angry about a similar plan by ConocoPhillips to haul four parts of a refinery installation to Billings. Those loads will be four feet wider than the ExxonMobil components, and could start moving later this month.

ExxonMobil's loads are destined for the tar-sands exploration fields of Alberta. Both companies want to drive their trucks from Lewiston, Idaho, along U.S. Highway 12 over Lolo Pass, through Missoula. The Alberta-bound trucks would then go up the Blackfoot River Valley to the Port of Sweetgrass, while the Billings trucks would pass through Helena and Lewistown.

"We feel confident the impact on the rivers and streams in Idaho would be too great," said Northern Rockies Rising Tide representative Nick Stocks. His supporters wanted the Montana Department of Transportation to conduct a full environmental impact statement instead of the current environmental assessment. The EA considers only project effects in Montana, while an EIS would examine everything from the load's arrival at the Port of Vancouver, Wash., to its entry into Canada at Sweetgrass.

The oil companies are proposing to spend $21.6 million to adapt the highways to their truck loads. That would include building pull-offs to allow traffic to get by, burying or reconstructing utility lines and preparing traffic signals to swing out of the way.

Granger said the rally's purpose was beyond simply blocking the trucks. He called for closure of the tar sands oil production itself, saying it was environmentally disastrous.

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Lynch said he was not bothered by the protest, saying one of the things he likes about the United States is that people can express themselves as they wish. He added his department is still going through the public comments gathered about the environmental assessment, and could have a decision by mid-June.

"So far, everything they (the oil companies) are doing is within the existing right-of-way on an existing travel corridor," Lynch said. "That does not require an EIS."

ExxonMobil has told MDT officials it wants to start moving its loads in fall 2010. ConocoPhillips could start its smaller project later this month. Lynch said the projects would require separate permits.

"That's the difference between what we're doing here and establishing a high-wide corridor," Lynch said. "We will still have to issue the permits separately, and anybody that wants to move an oversize load will have to go through the same entire process."

That was decidedly not the message the protesters were looking to hear. In addition to their mock court hearing, many participants left chalk messages objecting to the truck loads on the sidewalk outside the Missoula MDT office. One in the middle simply said "This will hurt Montana."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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