Mini megaloads on their way to the Athabascan oil sands are already winding their way through Montana via the interstate system, but more convoys and larger loads are planning to use the route that goes through Helena, beginning on Monday.
Pius Rolheiser, a spokesman for Imperial Oil Resources Ventures Ltd., said they’ve already cut down the size of many of their loads and have shipped them along the route, which in Montana follows Interstate 90 from the western border to Butte, then jumps onto I-15 and transports them to the Canadian border. From there they head north to Fort McMurry in northern Alberta.
But under a new permit application recently filed, Imperial wants the state to allow the transport company Mammoet USA South Inc. to take up to four standard oversize trucks at one time, as well as larger loads on hydraulic trucks that are still oversized but not as big as the megaloads, on the interstate route.
“We’ve been transporting modules on that route since early to mid-July,” Rolheiser said. “But because of the delays that we’ve been experiencing in obtaining permits for the original route from U.S. 12 through Missoula, up Highway 200 and along secondary roads to the border, we implemented our contingency plan in which the modules are disassembled, primarily to reduce the height.”
Imperial Oil already is cleared to transport the loads up U.S. Highway 95 from Lewiston, Idaho, to Interstate 90 and east to Montana. The company has moved about half of the 70 smaller loads now in Lewiston, with the other half in the works.
New shipments have been arriving from the manufacturer in South Korea at the port in Pasco, Wash., allowing easier access to the interstate system.
The new loads are still oversized, but meet all interstate road requirements, according to officials with the Montana Department of Transportation. Imperial Oil is seeking permission for up to 300 loads, and the tentative schedule calls for them to start hauling on Monday. The hauling is expected to run through March 31.
“The difference between the old and the new permits mainly is that this will allow more trucks to travel in one stage,” said Duane Williams, the MDT Motor Carrier Services Division administrator. “Currently just one truck is allowed; now they can have up to four.”
The smaller oversize loads will run during the day and few if any delays for other motorists are expected because they’ll be up to 16 feet wide and move at close to normal highway speeds.
However, the larger loads on the hydraulic trucks will run at night, and could force delays for other motorists since they’re up to 24 feet wide. At times, they’re expected to travel an average of only 5 to 15 mph, and on bridges and other narrow areas personal vehicles might not be able to get around them.
If they block traffic, they must stop every 10 minutes and allow traffic to pass, Rolheiser said.
Imperial Oil began the process of moving the modules through Montana more than three years ago, but they were met with resistance when the original route was to go over Lolo Pass, through downtown Missoula, along the scenic Blackfoot River and through smaller towns along the Rocky Mountain Front.
Missoula County, along with the National Wildlife Federation, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit against the MDT in April, arguing that the state’s environmental assessment was inadequate and that a full Environmental Impact Statement should be completed before any further permits were issued.
An injunction that’s in place is preventing Imperial Oil from moving utilities and creating the pull-outs they need to follow their preferred route, which Rolheiser said they still hope to use. The alternative, however, allows them to get at least some of the equipment to the oil sands.
“We want to keep the project that’s under construction on track, so we’re looking at all options available,” Rolheiser said.
Even if all the loads go through the interstate route, it doesn’t appear likely the lawsuit against the original route will go away anytime soon.
Jean Curtiss, chairwoman of the Missoula County Commission, one of the plaintiffs, said the county is still guarded against the scenic highways becoming a permanent corridor for oversized loads. She said she would like to see Imperial officially withdraw its U.S. 12 proposal.
“Our position all along has been the interstate is the preferred route to take these large loads through Missoula County,” Curtiss said. “The one thing that we don’t have is, ‘Will (Imperial) let these permits go?’”
The Montana Transportation Plan for this project is available on the MDT website: http://www.mdt.mt.gov/oversize/.
People with questions can contact Williams at 444-7312. Written comments may be submitted to the Montana Department of Transportation Helena MCS office at P.O. Box 201001, Helena, MT 59620-1001, or online at http://www.mdt.mt.gov/mdt/comment_form.shtml with “Mammoet Interstate Transportation Permits” in the subject line.
“We want to inform the public, and if problems arise as we’re issuing the permits, we want to hear from people,” Williams said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com