111611 big rig

A megaload travels east on Interstate 90 near Drummond on Monday, Nov. 14, 2011. Trucks hauling the equipment bound for the oil sands of northern Alberta were common on the freeway in the past year.

As the latest Year of the Big Rigs draws to a close in Montana, it's kind of quiet out there, is it not?

Oh, they're still making noise in Idaho, where Moscow bristles with each new convoy of Imperial Oil/Exxon Mobil megaloads that rolls through town.

And big rigs still rumble through Missoula in the night. Nickel Brothers recently finished moving the last of 23 Alberta-bound loads of Weyerhauser pulp mill equipment down U.S. Highway 12 and up the Blackfoot on Montana Highway 200.

Mammoet and Imperial Oil/Exxon Mobil continue to empty docks at Lewiston, Idaho, and Pasco, Wash., of those large and controversial loads of processing equipment for the Kearl Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta. The 205 modules the companies originally proposed to haul over the same two-lane route that Nickel Brothers followed have been sliced and diced to something close to 300 loads.

So far, the moves have all been via Interstate 90 through western Montana. But after a favorable ruling in October by a district court judge in Missoula, the Highway 12 route over Lolo Pass is open to Imperial/Exxon. The company, far behind schedule in getting its equipment to Canada, has submitted a revised transportation plan to the Montana Department of Transportation to open that path. As of late last week, no 32-J permits had been applied for or granted.

Roughly 25 of 70 Imperial/Exxon loads remain at the Port of Lewiston, and there's a "much larger number" at the Port of Pasco, Imperial's Pius Rolheiser said last week.

Missoula County and four co-plaintiffs are suing the Montana Department of Transportation and Imperial/Exxon to force a more complete environmental review of the Highway 12 route. A flurry of behind-the-scenes motions have been filed leading up to a scheduled Jan. 6 hearing on summary judgment in Missoula before District Judge Ray Dayton of Anaconda.

"That'll basically be the final hearing on the case," said Deputy Missoula County Attorney James McCubbin.

Cary Hegreberg of the Montana Contractors' Association and Barry "Spook" Stang of the Motor Carriers of Montana are proponents of the big rig projects and the most critical opponents of Missoula County's part in the suit.

They hailed Dayton's decision in October to open U.S. 12 back up to Imperial/Exxon loads as a victory, and Hegreberg called Missoula County's part in the suit "a monumental waste of taxpayer dollars that will cost Montana jobs at a time when the state can least afford it."

Missoula County commissioners defend their stance and say it's not costing the county anything extra. They're joined in the suit by the National Wildlife Federation, the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Montana Environmental Information Center. The Nez Perce and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes are in amicus support.

All plaintiffs prefer to remain out of the limelight as the court case plays out, and the most vocal public opponents in Montana were distinguished by their silence as the Nickel Brothers loads came through over the course of 2 1/2 months.

All Against the Haul, formed in 2010 to block the Montana leg of the Kearl project, lost its spokesman last summer when Zack Porter took a job with the Montana Wilderness Alliance. The No Shipments Network last posted to its Facebook account in February. And Northern Rockies Rising Tide's most recent blog post on the megaloads issue was a link to a Missoulian article on Nov. 4.

But Fighting Goliath fights on in Idaho. It was co-founder Borg Hendrickson of Kooskia who coined the term "megaload," to distinguish between normal over-legal loads and those at least 16 feet wide that require rolling roadblocks to move down the highway.

Hendrickson and husband Linwood Laughy consider their battle to keep Imperial/Exxon loads off Highway 12 a victory so far. But they suspect the war is just beginning. They say Harvest Energy, owned by South Korea's state-run Korea National Oil Corp., is laying the groundwork to move 40 to 60 megaloads in 2012, though its route isn't known.

A lawsuit in Idaho seeks to take the battle to the federal level, charging the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Highway Administration with failing to protect and enhance the Wild and Scenic Middle Fork Clearwater-Lochsa corridor. The defendants have filed for dismissal, and the case sits in the hands of Boise judge. It figures to heat up in 2012.

Laughy recently showed Keith Schneider, a writer for the New York Times, up the Clearwater/Lochsa River corridor.

"This guy travels all around the world. He was in China four times last year and he speaks to big groups on energy and whatnot," Laughy said. "He was saying that one of the real big stories going on is this transport (issue). Not many people are seeing it from 30,000 feet, but he is, and he's saying essentially the Northwest has got this massive amount of transport starting to move.

"It's really not just Exxon Mobil, it's kind of like what's coming. The notion that Exxon Mobil is the big thing at 207 loads is probably not big at all."

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


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