Megaloads may face more scrutiny

Forest Service says environmental analysis will likely be needed over plan to bury power lines to accommodate loads on Lolo National Forest

Associated Press

Sunday, December 19, 2010

MISSOULA, Mont. – An environmental analysis will likely be needed concerning a plan to bury power lines through two and a half miles of the Lolo National Forest to accommodate giant oil equipment transports along U.S. Highway 12, an official said.

“The forest is currently predicting that an environmental analysis will need to be completed to address the issues the public have raised about the proposal,” Chris Partyka, environmental coordinator for the Lolo National Forest, told The Missoulian.

Partyka said the analysis is in response to about 19,000 public comments that came in through Oct. 15, and that the analysis will be developed after the holidays.

Most of the comments came from an “Action Alert” issued by the Natural Resource Defense Council, Partyka said, while fewer than 200 were unique comments.

ExxonMobil Corp. said it will pay to bury the lines along Lolo Creek so it can move 207 megaloads of oil refinery equipment from Lewiston through Montana to the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada.

Missoula Electric Cooperative filed an application with the U.S. Forest Service to do the work as an existing special-use permit.

Partyka said many of the 200 unique comments concerned whether the Canadian oil sands should be developed, or whether the hauling of the megaloads should be allowed, issues over which the Forest Service has no control.

“However, there were several issues raised concerning the impacts of truck haul on natural resources in the Lolo Creek drainage, including water quality, aesthetics and historical resources,” Partyka said. “Several residents who rely on power service in the area emphasized the need for the power line burial to reduce power outages from heavy snows and storm events.”

Partyka said an analysis of the comments hasn’t been completed, but when it is it will help determine the level of the environmental analysis.

The request to bury the power lines was originally approved last spring by Debbie Austin, the forest supervisor. But she rescinded that decision in July when the Nez Perce Tribe voiced concerns.

The Lolo Trail National Historic Landmark, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historic Trail are also near the proposed project.

In action in Idaho earlier this month concerning megaloads, a judge in southwestern Idaho listened to two days of testimony in a contested hearing concerning the Idaho Transportation Department issuing permits to ConocoPhillips to ship megaloads across U.S. Highway 12 in northern Idaho. The shipments are two massive coke drums destined for a refinery in Billings, Mont.

Clark said he hopes to issue his findings and a recommendation to the state agency before the end of the month.