MISSOULA — An official-looking “ghost” document discovered on the Internet by an Oregon reporter is not a predictor of the Montana Department of Transportation’s final decision on the Kearl Module Transportation Project, director Jim Lynch says.
Critics of the project aren’t so sure.
The incomplete, 76-page draft “FONSI” — Finding of No Significant Impact — was dated August 2010. It included responses to 22 areas of concern provided by some 7,200 comments during an open comment period last spring.
All the responses indicated approval of a project to ship more than 200 megaloads of mining processing equipment through western Montana to Canada.
“After an independent evaluation, MDT concludes that the EA adequately and accurately discusses the need, environmental issues, and impacts of the proposed project and appropriate mitigation measures,” the report’s introduction reads.
“It’s not our document,” Lynch said. “I don’t know where it came from or what’s been done to it. The only official thing that the Department of Transportation has is the draft Environmental Assessment.”
Issues raised by that draft, which was released to the public for comment in April and May, are still being addressed by Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil, the company that wants to make the shipments.
“We’re real close,” Lynch said last week.
The “ghost” FONSI included responses to comments ranging from the environmental review process to concerns that the Kearl project will establish a “high-wide corridor” through remote central Idaho and western Montana. The proposed route starts in Montana at Lolo Pass on U.S. Highway 12, passes through Missoula on U.S. Highway 93, and up the Blackfoot on Highway 200, then over Rogers Pass to the Rocky Mountain Front.
“The proposed … route is an existing permanent transportation corridor that currently facilitates oversize and commercial loads. It is currently and has historically been used to move materials and freight, including oversize loads,” the response read.
What’s more, it added, MDT has the power to prevent future oversized loads on the route. It can direct Imperial Oil to remove turnouts once the 207 modules have passed, and it has the authority to reject future permits for oversized loads “if it is determined that the applicant’s proposal would have the potential to cause unacceptable impacts on Montana residents, businesses, or facilities.”
Lynch suggested the FONSI draft may have been the work of oil company planners.
“Remember, they’re the ones that are putting the information together on the EA,” he said. “In any case it could have been a direction somebody wanted to go, not necessarily a direction the Department of Transportation wanted to go.”
Missoula attorney Bob Gentry, a former attorney at MDT and an active opponent of the Kearl project, thinks the draft has more significance than Lynch is letting on.
“I’m guessing what happened was they knew what their final decision was going to be and had reached that decision and were preparing the ‘Finding of No Significant Impact,’ ” Gentry said. “And then intervening factors caused them to hold off on making the final decision.”
Those factors, he suggested, were legal actions in Idaho that sought to bar another oil company, ConocoPhillips, from transporting four loads of similar size to those proposed by Exxon from Lewiston to a Billings refinery.
In early August, Lynch indicated the Montana department hoped to complete the environmental assessment by Aug. 15. Three Idaho residents initiated the legal action on Aug. 16.
Lynch later said it was a mistake to try to put an end date on the complex process, because it’s in the hands of the oil company as much or more than in MDT’s. He added that a project that generates so many public comments and concerns was bound to take a long time.
“It’s not a final decision until they publish it,” agreed Gentry. “And they still had the option to require an EIS. It’s also probably not improper that they should start drafting a document consistent with what they think their final decision is going to be.
“Nonetheless, it does give an idea about what their decision is going to look like.”
Gentry became aware of the FONSI draft during an interview with Camilla Mortensen, a reporter for the Eugene Weekly in Oregon. Mortensen had come across it while doing Internet research for a story on the Kearl Module protests.
She said someone at the Department of Transportation apparently uploaded it in document form to the department’s public document website. That document was gone when she searched for it, but Google had created a Web-language version that lingered for a time on its servers, Mortensen said by e-mail last week.
“The ‘ghost’ (I’m sure there’s a techie word for it) disappeared after a week or two,” she wrote.
Mortensen sent the link to Gentry, who downloaded it and added it to the massive amount of electronic information he has gathered in tracking MDT’s review process.
He also forwarded it to Missoula County public works director Greg Robertson.
“Reading it, it sure seems pretty darn official to me,” Robertson said. “It’s not likely the final document but if nothing else, since there’s been not much in the way of information coming out from MDT, at least it gives you an idea of their thinking at the time it was written.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman
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