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

They're either heroes of the county or they're enemies of free enterprise who ought to resign on the spot.

"You've obviously lost track of who it is that pays your wages. You've gotten in bed with obstructionists and environmentalists," John Ployhar of Potomac told the Missoula County commissioners on Wednesday.

"I'm grateful to you, and I would vote for you next time," countered Celeste Rivers of Missoula.

At issue was the commissioners' decision to take the Montana Department of Transportation to court to halt a parade of megaloads bound for the Canadian tar sands. Commissioners Bill Carey, Jean Curtiss and Michele Landquist want a more extensive environmental review of the project and would rather see the big rigs travel across the county by interstate rather than scenic two-lanes.

They heard it from both sides in a lively tit-for-tat during the comment period of their weekly public meeting at the courthouse.

It was the first open-mike setting since last week's District Court hearing on the request by the county and three co-plaintiffs to stop work on the Kearl Module Transportation Project. Judge Ray Dayton of Anaconda isn't expected to make his decision on the request until next month, though his temporary restraining order remains in effect.

Wednesday's protesters were organized last week at a meeting of Missoula Conservative Patriots, "to say we're offended by the use of our tax money to sue our Department of Transportation," Jeannette Zentgraf of Lolo said beforehand.

When All Against the Haul, a group supporting the county's lawsuit, caught wind of the plan, coordinator Zack Porter made a figurative call to arms. The results were a standing-room-only crowd of 45 for the Wednesday session, and an almost down-the-middle split of proponents and opponents of the lawsuit.

Twenty-one people spoke, 11 of them in favor of what they characterized as the commissioners' bold action.

"I'm here to congratulate the board of commissioners for taking part in the lawsuit against the transportation department, asking them to get serious about the environmental damage that would be caused by turning Lolo Pass into a permanent industrial high-wide corridor," said Carol Marsh of Missoula.

"Here we go again," answered Bill Chandler of Missoula, the first of 10 to take the commissioners to task. "The Imperial lawsuit sends a message to those attempting to do business in Missoula: We don't want you. We will litigate you, slander you and harass you until you leave and/or shut down."

Zentgraf asked the commissioners not to pursue the lawsuit further should Dayton rule against them.

"My concerns are the costs of this lawsuit, using taxpayer money," said Gloria Roark of Missoula. "I would like to know the exact amount of the entire bill for legal representation, including any consultations, filings, court proceedings, and the amount of time translated into dollars that you, as commissioners, incurred on this matter alone."

Curtiss said afterward that Missoula County will split with all six parties the estimated $1,000 it'll cost to produce the 700-page transcript of the three-day hearing.

Beyond that, All Against the Haul has covered costs of producing other depositions. Deputy County Attorney James McCubbin and other county officials who took part in preparation of the suit received nothing beyond their normal salaries.

"We deal with things like this every day of our lives, so the time we spend on this isn't any different from when somebody decides to sue us," said Curtiss. "We haven't neglected any of our other duties because of this lawsuit."

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