Missoula County Seeks to Stop Kearl Oil Megaloads

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – A Missoula City-County Health Department official said Monday that roadside turnouts needed to haul huge loads of oilfield equipment through northwestern Montana threaten the watershed.

The Missoulian reports environmental health supervisor Peter Nielsen testified at a hearing in which the county, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center are seeking a preliminary injunction against a plan to move more than 200 loads of equipment through Montana.

The defendants are the Montana Department of Transportation and Imperial Oil, the Canadian arm of oil giant ExxonMobil.

Last month, District Judge Ray Dayton of Anaconda granted a temporary restraining order against the Kearl Module Transport Project until a hearing was held on the request for a preliminary injunction.

Nielsen testified Monday that additional study has left him even more convinced that the Transportation Department’s environmental assessment on the plan did not adequately address water resource issues.

He said sediment control measures already in place for about 10 miles of utility lines buried last fall to aid in the transport project were improperly installed and are already missing in some places. He added that he can see no indication that Missoula Electric Cooperative has performed routine monthly maintenance required by state law.

Nielsen also testified that some proposed turnouts would be closer to the stream or to wetlands than the 100 feet stipulated in the plan.

Meanwhile, Missoula attorney Stephen Brown, representing Imperial/Exxon, noted the state Department of Environmental Quality approved the turnout construction plan in the environmental assessment, and that flexibility is built into the plan to move the location of turnouts when such concerns are raised.

Questions also were raised by Steve Seninger, an economist and senior research professor at the University of Montana.

He testified during the hearing that the economic analysis of the project includes “so-called benefits” that would supposedly result in $67.8 million for Montana “that have no basis in terms of economics.”

He criticized the project because there is no preferred hiring clause for Montanans and nothing that says equipment and machinery will be purchased in the state. Meanwhile, he said Western Montana’s tourism and travel industry will be hurt if there’s a perception that an industrial corridor runs through the area.

But under cross examination by MDT attorneys, Seninger acknowledged that the addition of 54 turnouts could benefit tourists in terms of access to the backcountry and improved views.

The hearing is scheduled for three days.

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