Montana ruling blocks megaloads

Thursday, July 21, 2011 | By ELAINE WILLIAMS of the Tribune The Lewiston Tribune 

No megaload can enter Montana on U.S. Highway 12, at least for now.

“The preliminary injunction will be in place until there is a final judgment in the case (unless the judge rescinds the current order),” according to James McCubbin.

McCubbin represents Missoula County commissioners, who along with three environmental groups want to stop Imperial Oil from taking the loads that take up two lanes of traffic on U.S. Highway 12 and Highway 200 in Montana.

The injunction in their case stops the Montana Department of Transportation from issuing permits for megaloads to travel on U.S. 12. It also bans giving additional permits to raise or bury utility lines in 572 locations, and change traffic signals and road signs. The injunction doesn’t specify how many permits have already been issued.

The creation of, or changes to, 75 turnouts for the oversized loads can proceed since the permits have been issued, but “construction would be at Imperial Oil’s peril,” according to the ruling by Ray Dayton, a District Court judge in Montana.

The turnouts are needed so the loads can meet Montana’s requirement of having to pull over every 10 minutes.

What happens next is still unfolding as Imperial Oil officials digest Dayton’s ruling, said Pius Rolheiser, a spokesman for Imperial Oil. Among the options considered are “other potential routes,” as well as using more than one route at once, Rolheiser said.

The more than 100 loads Imperial Oil wants to move through Idaho and Montana would carry pieces of a processing plant to be constructed in the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada.

About 20 percent of the prefabricated modules needed for the plant are manufactured in Korea and shipped to the United States. The remainder are made in Canada. If they’re short enough when they arrive in the United States to go on the interstate highway system, they start their road journey at the Port of Vancouver.

Imperial Oil wants to send the taller ones that can’t make it under interstate overpasses to the Port of Lewiston, where they would take U.S. 12 to Montana.

In addition to needing permission to haul the shipments through Montana, Imperial Oil is awaiting the go-ahead in Idaho for U.S. 12, but that process seems to be going in favor of the oil company.

A retired judge sided with Imperial Oil after listening to testimony from the company, the Idaho Transportation Department and opponents during an ITD proceeding. Opponents challenged the retired judge’s recommendation and no decision has been made on the appeal.

Imperial Oil has yet to use U.S. Highway 95 and Interstate 90 for any oversized loads, even though it twice received an Idaho permit to do so.

The company spent millions turning 33 modules already shipped to the Port of Lewiston into 60 shorter ones so they could make it under interstate overpasses. The 33 arrived at the Port of Lewiston in the fall before Imperial Oil realized how difficult it would be to get permission to transport them on U.S. 12 through Idaho and Montana.

Imperial Oil hasn’t announced a date for the first of those loads to go. “It’s just a matter of making sure we have all the details right,” Rolheiser said. “Doing it flawlessly is more important than doing it according to a timetable.”

The Kearl Oil Sands project is still on target to be finished by the end of 2012, but delays in getting the loads to Canada are creating challenges, such as possibly assembling the plant out of sequence or out of season in the winter, Rolheiser said.