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HELENA - Despite an e-mail logjam this week, state transportation director Jim Lynch said Thursday he sees no need to extend the public comment deadline on an environmental assessment of a request to run 200 huge rigs through parts of western Montana to the Canadian oil fields.

Friday is the end of the 30-day comment period.

Under the Montana Environmental Policy Act, the public is given 30 days to comment on environmental assessments.

"If a department would extend the time, there would have to be some good reasons to extend it," Lynch said. "Having an e-mail returned wouldn't necessarily be a reason."

Disagreeing was Zack Brown, a University of Montana student working on transportation issues, who called for an extension of the comment period.

"It's completely necessary," Brown said. "The 30 days was completely inadequate to begin with. The system failure blocked hundreds, if not thousands, of comments from being heard."

At issue is the environmental assessment of Imperial Oil/Exxon Mobil's request to run 200 massive rigs through Missoula and the Blackfoot Valley en route to the Canadian border. The project is formally known as the Kearl Module Transport Project.

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On Tuesday, 6,500 e-mails, all sent through by individuals through the Natural Resource Defense Council, a national environmental group, clogged the state agency's e-mail system for a day, Lynch said. These e-mails appear to have been identical except for the signers' names, he said.

"We fixed it," he said. "If they are using e-mail, one of many ways to comment, all they have to do is resend." People also may phone the department, fax the department or send a letter by mail.

The agency had public meetings on the proposal in Cut Bank, Lincoln and Missoula.

Even though the e-mails may have bounced back to the sender, they still may have reached the department, Lynch said.

When the department realized the problem, it changed the way the e-mails were received so they wound up in a central e-mail box instead of an individual employee's e-mail.

If someone's e-mail comment was kicked back, a sender can send it again, he said.

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But Carla Adams, a Missoula resident concerned about the proposal, said her e-mail comments bounced back. She tried to resend two other times with similar results, including as late as Thursday morning.

"I was a little upset about it," she said. "I think it's very important that people are making comments. I certainly think the process is a good one as long as these comments can get through."

Lynch said the department has received 200 comments on the environmental assessment besides the 6,500 e-mails with what appear to be the same message. If all 6,500 e-mailed comments are the same, they are counted as a single comment, he said.

Depending on the nature of the comments submitted, Lunch said he may decide to extend the deadline.

He said the department pays attention to every comment and must address all issues raised in deciding whether to grant the permit to allow these oversized loads to be hauled on Montana's highways.

The issue facing the department is whether to issue the permit, not whether to develop the Canadian oil sands, he said. That decision has already been made by the Canadian government.

 

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