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Missoula County commissioners are asking the state's Transportation Commission to require a more meaningful environmental review of the Kearl Module Transportation Project.

In a strongly worded letter to transportation commission chairwoman Nancy Espy of Broadus, the Missoula commissioners took to task the Montana Department of Transportation for treating the pending movement of super-sized modules through the state "strictly from a mitigation standpoint."

"Clearly, the intention of the department was to issue a permit, regardless of the validity of public opposition," commissioners Michele Landquist, Bill Carey and Jean Curtiss wrote in a letter they signed Wednesday at a morning administrative meeting.

"It is also clear that this route, when permitted, will become a permanent route, despite claims by the Department to the contrary."

At the least, the commissioners said, MDT should require an environmental impact statement from Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil of Canada. The oil company wants to move 207 modules - all requiring "32-J" oversized permits and many too high to fit under interstate overpasses - along two-lane highways from Lolo Pass to Alberta, Canada, via the Port of Sweetgrass.

Espy said she would have no response to the letter until she read it. But she stressed, "Public comments are always taken seriously. They're recorded, gone over, reviewed. There's good information that goes with those public comments."

Testimony from a 30-day comment period of the Kearl project's environmental assessment was forwarded from the transportation department to ExxonMobil for its response.

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Dwane Kailey, chief operations officer at MDT, said the department recently received most of the company's responses back.

"We're in the process of reviewing those. I have no date as to when that will be complete," he said. "Just to be very clear, we will review them and anything we find that doesn't appropriately address the comment will be sent back to Exxon for edit or additional response."

Kailey hadn't seen the letter from Missoula commissioners Wednesday afternoon, but he said his office will be "more than happy to review it and respond to the questions the (transportation) commission has for us on it."

The Montana Environmental Policy Act gives "fairly decent guidance to where an (environmental assessment) vs. an environmental impact statement is appropriate," Kailey said. "We believe we're fully within the guidance provided by MEPA."

Environmental impact statements are outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act.

"Public outcry or public controversy is more detailed, more highly discussed in NEPA, and is not a large consideration of MEPA," Kailey said.

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Meanwhile in Idaho, a coalition of conservation groups told the Idaho Transportation Department that allowing Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips to proceed with their transport projects on U.S. Highway 12 may violate state law.

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And ITD was on the receiving end of a 1,700-signature petition calling for the denial of moving permits for the "massively oversized" loads. The petition was delivered to the department's office in Lewiston on Tuesday, and a copy was mailed to Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter.

Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater and the Boise-based environmental law firm Advocates for the West released a statement claiming state transportation officials falsely told residents and business owners of the Highway 12 corridor the transportation department has no choice but to issue permits for the oversized loads.

"There is no legal requirement for ITD to permit these loads, and in fact ITD may be violating its own regulations and legal agreements if it issues these permits," said Kevin Lewis, conservation director for Idaho Rivers United.

Allowing the transport projects to proceed may also violate state-federal agreements on management of the scenic Clearwater-Lochsa River corridor and threaten the scenic and recreational character of the rivers, the statement said.

The three-paragraph petition was written and circulated by "an informal network of north central Idahoans," according to an e-mail from Linwood Laughy and Borg Hendrickson of Kooskia, Idaho. The husband-and-wife team has coordinated opposition to the planned transports in Idaho.

The petition claims the transports of "massively oversized, road-obstructing industrial equipment" would degrade the intrinsic qualities of Highway 12, a Northwest Passage Scenic Byway and All-American Road.

Montana's Department of Transportation has said it won't issue moving permits until Idaho does, although it has already authorized the burying or raising of utility lines in anticipation of the moves. Some of ExxonMobil's loads are nearly 30 feet high, 24 feet wide and up to 210 feet long. Four loads of oil drums en route to the ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings are 26 feet high, 29 feet wide and 225 feet long.

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

 

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