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Looks like the Missoula County commissioners might get what they went to court for.

Imperial Oil/Exxon Mobil says it's still keeping its route options open, but it's prepared to start as early as next week and spend the next five months shipping up to 300 oversized loads on the interstates of Montana.

The Montana Department of Transportation announced Friday it's preparing to issue the permits.

"The interstate system has always been our preferred route for these oversized loads," commission chairwoman Jean Curtiss said. "We believe it is in the best interest of our part of the state to have Imperial Oil transport their equipment on Interstates 90 and 15."

Another more controversial route is via two-lanes across Lolo Pass on U.S. Highway 12, something Imperial/Exxon went to court for and claimed a partial victory last month. Judge Ray Dayton modified a preliminary injunction he initially granted to Missoula County and three other plaintiffs that allowed MDT to open the Highway 12 route to Missoula to Imperial Oil.

But even as Imperial/Exxon gears up to start moving loads wholesale from river ports in Pasco, Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho, it has submitted no new travel plan for Highway 12, according to the administrator of MDT's Motor Carrier Services Division.

"As of today, we have not received any application or plan for them to move any loads across 12," Duane Williams said. "I think they're really contemplating it. I don't know if they're going to submit one or not."

Imperial spokesman Pius Rolheiser repeated the stance his company has maintained throughout the litigious Kearl Module Transportation Plan process: "We continue to view U.S. 12 as a viable route. We haven't made specific decisions yet or taken specific action."

The travel plan for up to 300 modules on the interstate system from Lookout Pass at the Idaho line to the Port of Sweet Grass on the Albertan border is a revised one.

Roheiser said Imperial and Mammoet, its transport company, have already moved roughly half of the 60 loads that were downsized at the Port of Lewiston to make them interstate compatible and are already permitted by the transportation departments of both states. In late September, the company started draining the stockpile of loads from the Port of Pasco, Wash. Those have also received MDT's permission.

All the modules were made in South Korea, all have reached the United States, and all are destined to the construction site of Imperial/Exxon's massive Kearl Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta. Rolheiser stressed that all are iterations of the 205 modules the company originally said it was going to haul through Montana via two-lane highways.

"Unfortunately, the math is not terribly simple because we're slicing and dicing these loads," he said.

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Williams said the revised plan allows Mammoet to move more loads per segment of the interstate route. For conventional loads, which move at up to 55 mph during the daytime, the number jumps from two to four in any given stage. The Idaho line to Deer Lodge is the first stage for the daytime hauls.

The larger loads, on hydraulic platform trailers, can now travel two at a time, rather than one, in any of the six stages. They'll travel after dark on weeknights, usually Mondays through Thursdays, with a maximum speed of 35 mph and at least 1,000 feet between the lead pilot car and the trail pilot.

The largest of the modules, sans truck and trailer, are 25 feet wide; 11 feet, 10 inches high; and 122-5 long. Williams said the only difference between the hydraulic and conventional loads is the weight, which determines the speed at which they can travel.

MDT said one lane of travel will remain open, though "travelers may occasionally experience short delays during the transport of these oversize loads."

Missoula County will continue to pursue a permanent blockage of so-called megaloads over the two-lane highways in the county.

"Using scenic, narrow river valleys along Highways 12 and 200 never made sense to us and the inadequate analysis in (MDT's environmental assessment) certainly didn't allay any of our fears," Curtiss said.

The Department of Transportation is soliciting written and online comments on the interstate shipments, which are tentatively to start next week and are expected to be completed by the end of March 2012.

The transportation plan is available on the MDT website, www.mdt.mt.gov/oversize.

For more information, contact Duane Williams, MDT Motor Carrier Services Division Administrator at (406) 444-7312. For the hearing impaired, the TTY number is (406) 444-7696 or 1-800-335-7592, or call the Montana Relay at 7-1-1.

Written comments may be submitted to the Montana Department of Transportation Helena MCS office at P.O. Box 201001, Helena, MT 59620-1001, or at www.mdt.mt.gov/mdt/comment_form.shtml. MDT asks to denote comments are for the "Mammoet Interstate Transportation Permits." Alternative accessible formats of this information will be provided upon request.

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

 

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