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Judge halts Montana megaload shipments

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newwest-blogger | Jul 21, 2011 05:00 AM

By New West Editor

In what appears to be a major victory for those fighting the transport of oversized oil refinery equipment through Idaho and Montana to the Kearl Oil Sands in Canada, a judge has ruled that the Montana Department of Transportation is in violation of the law and issued a preliminary injunction.

Montana megaloadJudge Ray Dayton, a district court judge in Anaconda, found the Department of Transportation was in default in accepting a less-than-adequate environmental assessment regarding the construction of turnouts, which are essential for the rigs as they travel from Lewiston, Idaho, along the Lochsa River on Highway 12 over Lolo Pass and into Montana, where they’d also traverse Highway 200 and other two-lane roads. The judgment was in favor of the four plaintiffs, most notably Missoula County, which was joined in the suit by environmental groups National Wildlife Federation, Montana Environmental Information Center and the Montana chapter of the Sierra Club.

The plaintiffs claimed the department “failed to adequately consider impacts of the project and failed to adequately consider reasonable alternatives.” The judge agreed and also pointed out the department should have and did not identify which turnouts were temporary and which would be permanent. By not knowing, or not saying, it’d be unclear what the future environmental impact would be, he said.

Dwane Kailey, chief operations officer, engineer and highways administrator for the department, testified before Dayton that the decision to remove turnouts would be made “in the future, based on the benefit to the public,” according to Dayton’s memo on the decision.

That raised several questions. Among them, according to the decision: “Whether the turnouts are left in place will necessarily affect whether the route will accommodate future loads of similar size.” That’s a key point, as critics of the haul have expressed doubts that the 207 loads bound for Alberta will be the end of the megaloads along scenic byways. Indeed, a 2009 report from a hauler for Exxon/Mobil indicated the project will be a “game changer for Alberta’s oil sands developers,” opening up a “high-load corridor.”

Contacted by the Missoulian, Pius Rolheiser, spokesman for Imperial Oil, said the Calgary-based company was disappointed with Dayton’s ruling.

“As we’ve just received the judge’s order, we will need time to assess, understand and determine our next steps,” Rolheiser said.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Image of Wyoming coal trains  courtesy Flickr user Nicholas Senn

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