HELENA, Mont. — As the nation anxiously watches the catastrophic continuing Gulf oil spill, one portion of the country is growing concerned about another oil-related issue — a plan to transport the enormous machinery required to build an oil-processing plant in Canada.





he immediate issue is not the plant itself — which would extract oil from sand — but the disruptions and environmental issues involved with trucking more than 200 massive pieces of Korean-built processing equipment along the path of Lewis and Clark and adjacent to famed wild and scenic rivers in Northern Rockies.

Some of the loads will be as large as 24 feet wide by 30 feet tall and up to 160 feet in length and the largest rigs will weigh as much as 150 tons or more. According to Montana's  environmental assessment, Canadian oil giant Imperial Oil is expected to spend more than $40 million in Montana to upgrade roadways and relocate utilities to accommodate trucks along the route.

'Destructive project'

The anticipated route from Idaho's  Port of Lewistown to Canada's Alberta's oil sands will take the rigs along the banks of Idaho's Lochsa River, a world-class fishery and popular whitewater destination, and Montana's Blackfoot River, of author Norman Maclean's  A River Runs Through It fame.

The Athabasca oil sands are a massive deposit of bitumen — a tar-like form of petroleum — located in northern Alberta. According to the Government of Alberta Energy Department, bitumen, unlike conventional oil, requires intensive processing before it can be pumped into pipelines and transported to U.S. refineries. Environmental groups, such as the Polaris Institute, have called the Canadian oil sands "the most destructive project on earth."

Imperial Oil has filed plans with transportation officials in Montana and Idaho to begin hauling the necessary equipment starting in October. The project would last about a year, according to the proposal.

Proponents of the project claim Imperial's proposal is a one-time project that will bring millions of dollars in revenue and economic benefits to cash-strapped communities along the route.

"I like it when companies come to Montana and spend money in Montana. That's good, especially if they don't degrade our environment while they're at it," said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat .

But citizen groups and environmentalists want to stop the project, fearing it could pave the way for a permanent high-and-wide industrial corridor that could put some of the nation's most scenic and environmentally sensitive roadways and habitats in jeopardy.

"The river is a great part of our lifestyle. We live along it. We recreate on it. We build our economy around it. It's everything to us," said opponent Borg Hendrickson, of Kooskia, Idaho. "If this becomes an industrial truck route that is all going to be destroyed."

According to a Montana environmental analysis, Imperial Oil, whose parent company is Exxon Mobil  Canada, plans to ship 207 modules from a factory in South Korea to Portland, Ore., where they will then be carried by barge up the Columbia and Snake rivers to the Port of Lewiston.

From there the loads will be trucked along the remote Clearwater and Lochsa rivers on the two-lane U.S. Route 12 and over Lolo Pass on the Montana-Idaho border. The rigs will travel some 330 miles through Montana and then on to the Kearl Lake area near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

"The Pacific Northwest Scenic Byway is much more than a pretty road in Idaho, it goes right through the heart and soul of Lewis and Clark's epic journey across the Bitterroot Divide and into Nez Perce country," said Brett Haverstick, a member of the Idaho-based opposing the project. "This landscape is some of America's greatest heritage. It contains a couple hundred years of American history and it should not be sacrificed or trampled because of ExxonMobil's tar pit sands transportation needs."

Close to habitats

Idaho doesn't require an environmental analysis for such a project but transportation officials in Montana are in the process of wrapping up their environmental assessment.

Montana officials, including Schweitzer, said a more comprehensive analysis is not required because Imperial Oil's proposal is being treated as a one-time deal with no significant environmental impacts.

"There hasn't been a proposal for a permanent transportation corridor and there haven't been any discussions formally or informally about that," Schweitzer said.

Environmentalists argue that the current proposal requires a more thorough environmental impact study because the route bisects critical habitat for threatened species and could endanger the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers, critical spawning grounds for native fish such as bull trout.

"Just building the highway turnouts will put a lot of sediment into these streams, which will harm bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout," said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "This is a major project that we think should result in a full environmental impact statement."

Source: USA Today

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