Judge dumps part of ‘megaloads’ suit

Associated Press | Thursday, June 30, 2011 12:00 am

MISSOULA, Mont. – A judge has dismissed a claim that Montana transportation officials violated the state constitution when they approved an oil company’s plans to haul oversized refinery equipment through Montana to Canada’s oil sands.

But Missoula County Judge Ray Dayton ruled Tuesday that the county and three environmental groups can pursue their other claim that the Montana Department of Transportation broke state environmental laws by approving the shipments without properly analyzing the effects on the environment.

Dayton’s ruling comes a day after ExxonMobil Corp. scored a victory in its push to use portions of Idaho and Montana as a corridor to haul the loads built in South Korea to Alberta, Canada. On Monday, an Idaho state hearing officer recommended that Idaho’s transportation department issue permits allowing the company to truck the shipments along U.S. Highway 12.

In the separate Montana case, Missoula County, the National Wildlife Federation, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club are suing the state over the permits that already have been approved. They are asking the judge to halt the shipments until the effects and potential hazards of the loads are thoroughly analyzed.

A portion of the lawsuit had claimed the state had withheld important information relevant to the shipments and violated the public’s right to know and participate in the process under the Montana Constitution.

Dayton dismissed that claim, saying the 30-day statute of limitations had already expired when the plaintiffs made the allegation.

However, the lawsuit will continue. The judge denied the Transportation Department’s request to dismiss the other portion of the lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs claim transportation officials did not conduct a full environmental impact statement and didn’t study alternative routes.

The company initially planned to transport more than 200 of the shipments measuring 29 feet wide, 28 feet high and 226 feet long through Idaho and Montana, much of it along the route of the historic Lewis and Clark expedition.

But in recent months, ExxonMobil has spent millions of dollars to reduce the size of more than a dozen of the modules delivered to the port last year.

When rolling, the large shipments will occupy both lanes of the highway and travel only at night, with 15-minute stops at pullouts to alleviate public safety and convenience issues.