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Trains will continue on Flathead Reservation

Yellowstone Pipe Line Co. will move and rebuild seven miles of its gasoline pipeline in the Prospect Creek drainage outside Thompson Falls, but will continue using trains to ship fuel around the Flathead Indian Reservation, the company's vice president said Wednesday.

Tom Wanzeck said work will begin this summer to relocate seven sections of pipe that - because of Prospect Creek's meanderings over the past 47 years - have ended up in the river, exposed and at risk of corrosion.

The work will satisfy conditions imposed by the U.S. Forest Service in a decision released Wednesday, renewing the pipeline company's permit to cross national forest land between Thompson Falls and Kingston, Idaho.

Yes, the Forest Service said, YPL can continue operating its pipeline, but must move away from streams, bury the pipeline deeper at stream crossings, upgrade procedures for detecting spills and improve riparian areas within its right-of-way.

"It's a good decision, environmentally and safety wise," said Lolo National Forest supervisor Debbie Austin. "In several locations, the pipeline is actually visible in Prospect Creek. In high runoff, that's a lot of pressure and force pounding on that pipe. It makes it less safe."

"The pipeline that exists now was built in 1954," she said. "We understand stream dynamics a lot better now than we did in the '50s. We can cross the creek with a lot less potential impact to both the pipeline and to the creek."

"I feel comfortable that the needs of the public and the needs of the environment will be met, and that YPL is interested in doing the right thing," Austin said.

The Forest Service's decision closes a tumultuous six-year process that saw Yellowstone Pipe Line Co. losing its easement across the Flathead Indian Reservation, then asking the Lolo forest to approve a new pipeline route through the Ninemile Valley and over Siegel Pass.

At the same time, YPL's permit to cross national forest land in western Montana and northern Idaho expired. And floods in 1995 and 1996 exposed sections of the existing pipeline along Prospect Creek, Prichard Creek and the Coeur d'Alene River.

By February 2000, all that remained was YPL's request that the Forest Service renew its special-use permit for the existing pipeline route. The Flathead reservation crossing was closed, and fuel was being shipped from Missoula to Thompson Falls by train. And the proposed Ninemile crossing was dead, ruled too environmentally sensitive by the Forest Service.

You can have a new route, the government said, but it must run along Interstate 90 in the existing utility corridor. No thanks - too expensive, came YPL's reply.

On Wednesday, Wanzeck said YPL still hopes to reconnect its pipeline, but has not selected a new route and "nothing is imminent."

"Our long-term wishes remain the same," he said. "Our preference would be to transport petroleum via pipeline, as that is a safer and more environmentally sensitive approach to transportation. Our continuing desire is to have a pipeline connection anyway that we can do that."

YPL does have a "continuing dialogue" with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Wanzeck said. But any negotiations for a renewed reservation crossing "would have to be their desire," he said. There has been no move to ask the Forest Service to reconsider a pipeline route through the Ninemile.

The change in presidential administrations and President Bush's call for increased energy production will not affect Yellowstone Pipe Line's plans, Wanzeck said. "It doesn't matter who's in the White House. It's not a political thing."

For now, he said, "things are working fine with Rail Link and we are real pleased with the Forest Service and the work that we have identified to do the repairs."

Terry Egenhoff, who supervised the environmental review and permit renewal for the Lolo forest, said the repairs will fix two problems.

"One is a pipeline safety issue caused by Prospect Creek both moving sideways and down in different places," he said. "There are some crossings that have been exposed or have shallow cover. The stream has moved a lot since 1954."

In the past, YPL's remedy for stopping or slowing the stream's natural meandering was to rip-rap the streambank.

"But that segues into problem No. 2," Egenhoff said. "Riprapping the stream has caused problems for the riparian area, the streamside habitat and the stream itself. Clearing the right of way for aerial observation of the pipeline makes it even worse."

The plan released Wednesday will move the pipeline into the right of way alongside state Highway 471, which runs west from Thompson Falls over Thompson Pass and into Idaho. Seven sections of the pipeline will be relocated, 10 new stream crossings will be constructed and 20 existing crossings will be abandoned.

"We feel that we got all the relocations needed for both pipeline safety and stream habitat management," Egenhoff said. "The riprap will be removed and restored. The clearing of the right of way will be absolutely minimal. The new crossings will be built to today's standards. There'll be a lot less pipe in riparian areas. It's a good thing."

With the exception of the disconnect between Missoula and Thompson Falls, the Yellowstone pipeline carries gasoline and jet fuel from refineries in Billings to markets throughout Montana, northern Idaho and eastern Washington. Its terminus is in Moses Lake, Wash.

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