(Billings, MT-YPR) When U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will provide more than $215 million in aid for storm-ravaged roads and bridges, the press release only hinted at the damage caused this year by extreme weather events: tornadoes, hurricanes, record heat, and flooding.
In Montana alone, record snowfall, mountain snowpack, and spring rains meant an historic flood year. In mid-September, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials had identified nearly 1,500 public infrastructure projects, totaling nearly $50 million.
2011 is emerging as a record year for disasters. According to the Pew Center's stateline.org, about 39 states are awaiting money to repair storm damaged roads, bridges and other public infrastructure. Some of that request was to the FHWA, for which Congress allocates up to $100 million a year.
(For a related story on climate change and transit costs, click here.)
“Communities suffering from disasters have been hard at work restoring vital transportation links so people can resume daily activities soon as possible,” says LaHood. “They did their part, and now it’s our turn to give the states the money they were promised to help pay for that work.”
Lynn Zanto of the Montana Department of Transportation estimated costs to the state from this spring’s flooding at $36 million. The state’s reimbursement from FHWA, which will help repair bridges and roads, is just over $2.56 million.
“Although this may seem like a small amount compared to our overall costs, we’re still very appreciative to our (Congressional) delegation, (and) Secretary LaHood,” Zanto said in a press release. “We do our best to make every dollar count and we’ll keep our fingers crossed and remain hopeful that we’ll see future reimbursements to help mitigate the impacts from the spring floods.”
Those projects would have to initially be paid for by local governments; reimbursement requests would be submitted to FEMA. The FHWA emergency relief money is only to repair or rebuild federal-aid highways and or roads located on federal land.
MDT’s Lynn Zanto says the agency worked quickly to restore the flow of traffic to flood damaged roads and bridges. She says this includes a South Central Montana bridge off of Interstate 94 that was damaged by flooding.
She says funding for that work came from the agency’s program fund that would otherwise pay for planned highway projects, which were put on temporary hold.
Of the $215 million in federal aid, California received the largest amount at $43 million. North Dakota follows at $31.5 million, and Vermont will receive just over $15 million.
The allocation is the second this year for the Federal Highway Administration, which also distributed $319 million for aid in April. But those disbursements don’t match 2006 and 2007 disbursements for Hurricane Katrina damage.
Also extremely expensive for the FWHA: 2004 and 2005 disbursements for California, which cost in excess of $300 million each.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Railroads are benefiting from the drilling boom in the Bakken Oil Formation. The region encompasses southern Canada bordering portions of Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota.
Denis Smith is vice president of marketing for industrial products for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF). He says railroads have a long history of hauling crude petroleum, including from the Bakken, “but at this scale and at this volume, that’s what makes it unique and different and very exciting,” he says.
Smith says BNSF’s increase in traffic isn't just from hauling crude petroleum from the oil wells in the Bakken and surrounding Williston Basin. He says these wells also need deliveries of drilling supplies like sand, pipe, and other heavy materials. He says the shortage of semi trucks and drivers and the current lack of pipeline capacity means companies are turning to railroads.
He says to accommodate the increase of drilling activity, BNSF has been laying new sections of track for its customers from its main line to the terminals to accommodate these shipments.
“So if anyone is spending a lot of money right here, right now on track and capacity it’s the customer,” Smith says. He says customers are also having to buy rail cars.
TransCanada has proposed building the Keystone X-L pipeline that is to originate at the tar sand oil fields in Alberta Canada and extend to refineries and distribution terminals along the Gulf Coast in Texas. The pipeline was also expected to pick up crude from the Bakken.
The Obama Administration announced earlier this month a decision on a permit will be delayed as the U.S. State Department considers an alternate pipeline route. Originally, a decision was anticipated by the end of 2011.
In the meantime, Smith says oil companies continue to rely on rail to transport crude to market. Even if the Keystone X-L project is approved and permitted, it will take time to construct the nearly 2,000 mile long pipeline. “Rail is the most immediate and quickest way to get the oil to the marketplace at the moment,” Smith says.
He adds rail is also more flexible. He says a pipeline is point-to-point while BNSF transports crude to multiple locations from the Bakken. This includes to refineries and distribution and storage terminals in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, California, and to the East Coast.
That’s why Smith says BNSF expects to have a continued role in the Bakken even if the Keystone X-L pipeline is approved and operating.
“Theoretically, technically, mathematically it will take away a lot more barrels than are currently going, but we feel that on the rail-side we’ll have a solid 20-25 percent of the daily production up there (Bakken) move by rail,” he says.
BNSF is not the only railroad that’s seeing an increase in its rail traffic. The Calgary Herald reports Canadian Pacific is also increasing its investment because of the Bakken oil boom, as are other rail lines.
(Billiings, MT – YPR) – Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) officials permanently reduced the nighttime speed limit to 45 miles per hour on a busy section of highway at night, effective today.
The affected section of Highway 26/89/191 is located about 4 miles north of Jackson, Wyoming and is open year round. In addition to being the south entrance to GTNP and park headquarters, it is also the road to the airport, to several private residences, and to the southern entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
GTNP spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles says the nighttime speed limit was permanently reduced from 55-to-45 miles per hour as part of the park’s road safety plan. She says the reduction went into effect in November because Fall is the prime migration time for large mammals.
“We always remind visitors and folks traveling on park roads and throughout the Jackson Hole valley, especially in the Fall, that wildlife are on the move. They are out and they are everywhere,” she says. “They tend to be most active between dusk and dawn and to stay alert, drive slow, look for that eye shine and be prepared to see wildlife when you’re driving on park roads.”
On average, over 100 large animals are killed on park roads each year. In 2010, that figure was 162 large animals were hit and killed by vehicles.
Anzelmo-Sarles says speed limits of 45 miles per hour or slower have proven effective at mitigating the chances of wildlife-vehicle collisions. Other efforts include, the permanent installation of variable message signs to alert drivers of current wildlife behavior and road conditions; placement of digital speed limit signs; and wider striping on the roads to highlight the center and fog lines. She says the later is known as “visual friction” as it gives the appearance to the driver that the driving lane is smaller and can cause the driver to slow down.
Anzelmo-Sarles says National Park Service rangers, Wyoming Highway Patrol, and Teton County Sheriffs deputies also actively patrol Highway 26/89/191 and will enforce the new reduced speed limit.
“And it only takes an additional 6 minutes to drive that span of road at the reduced speed limit so those 6 minutes could save a moose,” she says.
(Columbus, MT – YPR) – The world’s supply of the precious metals platinum and palladium comes from underground mines in Montana, Russia, Africa -- or from underneath your vehicle.
Platinum, Palladium and Rhodium (also known as Platinum Group Metals, or PGM) are used to manufacture catalytic converters, a pollution control device for internal combustion engines.
Stillwater Mining Company is one of the few operations in the world that can take automobile catalyst and extract the PGM.
“Because we mine Platinum Group Metals, we can do the recycling,” says Greg Roset, Vice President of Smelter and Recycling Operations.
Stillwater Mining Company operates the only U.S-based platinum and palladium mines in south central Montana. In the 1990’s the company began smelting and refining its ore in nearby Columbus, MT.
Prior to Stillwater’s entry into auto catalyst recycling in 1997, Roset says most of the recycling took place in Africa. He says there are also small furnaces that recycle in Texas, Alabama, and North Dakota.
He says there are many reasons why it makes sense to Stillwater to reclaim PGM. “It’s an opportunity to improve some employment in Montana,” he says. “But the driving force was economics. It gives us an opportunity to process those ounces here, keep them in the U.S., and make some money while we’re doing it.”
Stillwater has contracts to purchase automobile catalyst from customers from all over the world. Recently a delegation from China was touring the company’s metallurgical complex in Columbus.
Semis deliver to the smelter boxes and sacks what looks like garbage from the sweepings from someone’s garage.
“There’s probably not quite a ton, but that will be on the order of 60 ounces of platinum, palladium, rhodium right there,” says Roset. “That’s worth a lot of money. That’s over $70,000 worth of material right there.”
What someone can get to recycle an automobile’s catalytic converter varies widely, often dependent on what the precious metals are trading for on a particular day. On average, a person can expect from $60-500, depending on the year of its manufacture and type of vehicle.
Pacific Steel and Recycling has steel and scrap metal recycling offices across nine northwest and intermountain states. Manager Marshall Knick in Billings, MT, says when a car comes in for recycling, the catalytic converter is cut off, graded for quality, inventoried, and collected in a box for later shipment to Great Falls, MT, a central location -- “until we gather enough to fill a complete semi load and then sell that to the highest bidder.”
He says Montana has a law to prevent someone from cutting catalytic converters off of vehicles and then trying to sell it to shops, like Pacific Steel. “In the state of Montana any purchase of non-ferrous metals over $50 requires an ID and a license plate off the vehicle that brought it in. We try to deter that theft as much as possible. We don’t want to become a place of buying stolen materials.”
Knick says because of the high value, collectors drive all over the country visiting muffler, recycling shops and junk yards looking for spent catalytic converters. Then that person or someone else has to cut open the container and scrape out the catalyst, being careful to save not only the chunks of honeycomb, but also the dust, because it contains PGM.
Stillwater’s Greg Roset says the amount of recovered platinum, palladium and rhodium from automobile catalyst is competitive with the company’s underground mine operation.
“The mine (near Nye, MT) produces somewhere around that 350,000 to 400,000 ounces per year; east Boulder (near McLeod, MT) hovers around the 150,000 to 175,000 ounces per year,” he says. "Recycle has grown from 50,000 to we hope 450,000 to 500,000 ounces this year. So we actually process more ounces from recycle than we do from either of the mines.”
And Stillwater’s recycling extracts more than just PGM, says Dave Shuck, vice president of Stillwater’s Base Metal Refinery and Analytical Laboratory. He says by-products include copper plates, nickel, gypsum, and even the slag is used as fill for road construction.
The most valuable product looks like fine black sand. This platinum, palladium, rhodium rich material is sent out to another refiner for final purification. The metals can then be manufactured into catalytic converters, electronics, or other uses.
(Billings, MT-Yellowstone Public Radio) Most motorists face a daunting choice when they renew their license plates at their local motor vehicle department: do I accept the state-issued plate or get a specialty plate that costs a little more?
“I think that people chose a specialty plate for one of two reasons,” says McKinzie Ulberg, specialty plate liaison for the Montana Motor Vehicle Division. “The first reason being they want to sponsor the organization and the second reason being it looks pretty on their car.”
License plates serve as a driving billboards for numerous organizations. Because of that, they can be the source of controversy.
In Texas, the state Department of Motor Vehicle’s board is grappling over whether to approve a plate design sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans which features the confederate flag. The Los Angeles Times quoted state Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston as saying, “That battle flag is clearly a symbol of hatred and bigotry.” The board deadlocked on the issue earlier this year.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans have won court battles to have its license plates in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
In some states, it is up to boards, like in Texas, to approve an organization’s license plate design. In other states, it is up to the Legislature. In the case of Sons of Confederate Veterans, Florida state lawmakers refused to approve their plate. The group again sued and won in court.
Specialty license plates can be controversial, says Brenda Nordlund, administrator of the Montana Motor Vehicle Division. She says prior to 2001, Montana organizations that wanted to get their logo on a state license plate had to get legislative approval and then a signature from the governor.
“And you would go and deal with all the intricacies of ‘yes’ ‘no’ for that organization,” Nordlund says. “You get into some of those political considerations in that situation where legislatures make a decision based on their worth or how they perceive a particular organization.”
Nordlund says the 2001 Montana Legislature gave the state Department of Motor Vehicles administrative authority to approve specialty plate designs. “It took some of the politics out of it,” she says.
Montana currently offers 161 specialty license plates, benefiting everything from the Montana Weed Control Association to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. A new report from the Montana DMV says sales of collegiate plates raised over $179,000 for student scholarships in the first quarter of fiscal year 2012; sales of specialty license plate sales for organizations raised nearly $848,000 in the same period. State officials expect those numbers to grow.
The latest national report on specialty plates comes from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators issued in 2010. Maryland leads the states with over 800 specialty license plates.
You can see pictures of more Montana license plates on Flickr.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Montana’s largest county has a new tool to crack down on repeat DUI offenders. A new law went into effect October 1, 2011 that allowed the 24/7 Sobriety Program to go statewide.
Montana has the highest DUI rates in the nation.
Yellowstone County will launch the program Friday (October 7, 2011). Earlier this week, a Yellowstone County District Judge ordered a Billings woman accused of endangering a 3-year old child in a drunk driving hit-and-run crash into the program if she is released from jail.
According to the latest report from the Yellowstone County DUI Task Force, the county ranked the worst in the state because of the number of DUI-related crashes in 2009. That year there were 365 alcohol-related wrecks; 11 people died as a result.
“Unfortunately in Yellowstone County we do have a problem with DUI,” says County Attorney Scott Twito. “Repeat offenders continue to terrorize people on our roadways.”
He and other law enforcement officials hope the 24/7 Sobriety Program will prompt repeat offenders to stop drinking and make Montana’s roadways safer.
Under the program, the court orders participation for offenders with a second or subsequent DUI. It could be as a condition of bond, pre-trial release or probation and parole.
Participants pay the $2/test fee and must report two times a day for a breathalyzer test.
“If they blow zeros,” says Yellowstone County Undersheriff Kevin Evans, “they’re free to go.” If they don’t they will wait 20 minutes and re-test. “If it’s another positive sample, the detention staff will come out and take ‘em back there in the detention facility.” The court will also be notified the person is in contempt of court.
“The two things that strike me about 24/7 were one: it curbs the behavior – first and foremost – of the repeat offender,” says County Attorney Scott Twito. “But two, it holds them accountable, not only to themselves and to the courts.”
Montana based House Bill 106 on a program in South Dakota.
State Attorney General Steve Bullock says the tougher laws cracking down on DUI passed by the 2011 Montana Legislature should keep Montana’s highways safer. He says that’s been the experience in South Dakota.
“They used to be with us in having some of the most dangerous highways in the country as it relates to alcohol-related fatalities per mile traveled per population,” Bullock says. He says between 2006 to 2007, those fatalities in South Dakota dropped 33% while at the same time in Montana, fatalities increased 2%.
While Bullock is hopeful Montana can reduce that number, he’s not holding out 24/7 as a sliver bullet.
“This isn’t something that will change our whole environment and change attitudes,” Bullock says about the culture of drinking and driving. “It (the law) went into effect October 1st. The world won’t change by November 1st, but what this will do is make sure that those offenders will be treated as individuals. We’re treating them as individuals to try to address the problems that they have.”
(Boise, ID - YPR) The ribbon will be cut on downtown Boise's first car sharing program today. It's the third car share program in Idaho -- but the first that's non-campus-based.
Karen Sander, the executive director of the Downtown Boise Association (DBA), says the group became interested in car share after Boise State University started one for its students last fall.
Sander said her organization sees car share as a way to encourage people to ditch their personal vehicles. “The typical pushback for using transit is, ‘What if I need to run an errand on the other end of my commute?’” Sander says the flexibility of car share gives people easy access to a car.
DBA worked in cooperation with Capital City Development Corporation, the city of Boise, and Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s WeCar Program. Sander says at first the program will start with two vehicles. A press release says Enterprise anticipates more vehicles could be added throughout downtown Boise in the future.
Under the program, WeCar participants will pay an annual $35 fee. There’s an hourly fee to use a vehicle for local trips which includes gasoline, insurance and mileage up to 200 miles a day.
Sander says Boise is like many of its neighboring western states -- car crazy. “I think automobiles rule,” she says. “I think they will for a long time.” But, she says, when gasoline hit the $4 a gallon mark, residents began looking at other transportation options.
“I think people are starting to get smart about how they can save transportation dollars and use them in other areas of their lives,” Sander says. “And if those options are there, they’re going to use them -- [especially] if they’re flexible and they’re accessible.”
She adds that Boise is also an environmentally conscious community, and many residents ride their bicycles to and from downtown. “We’re a bike crazy community. Everyone likes their bicycles,” she says. Because of that, she says the car share sites will have bike lockers.
The car share program has other advantages as well. “It complements urban community sustainability programs reducing local emissions, traffic congestion and parking congestion," says Sander. "I think .. a lot of people look at the cost savings first. And then folks who are interested in taking care of the environment -- this is one step closer to doing that.”
Sander says the city of Boise is now considering whether to add a bike share program.
The impasse means FEMA’s disaster relief fund could run out of money early this week. In the meantime, reimbursements for disasters in Montana and 41 other states are on hold.
In Montana, Fergus County was hard hit by last Spring’s flooding. County Commissioner Ken Ronish says over a dozen bridges were washed out. He says he knows some residents are impatient with the slow progress of getting roads and bridges repaired.
When asked about the lack of action in Congress, Ronish said commissioners met with Montana’s Congressional delegation. He adds, the central Montana county has borrowed $1 million from the state’s inter-cap loan fund to start repairs.
“When the million dollars is done, we’re done except for routine maintenance,” Ronish says. “The FEMA people keep telling us don’t worry. This happens every year. I hope they’re right.”
In the meantime, Fergus County paid $130,000 for a temporary bridge across McDonald Creek in Grass Range, MT.
In mid-May, constant rain caused the creek to rise. The flood waters washed away the approaches to the existing wooden bridge that connects Main Street to the Forest Grove Road.
The 2010 U-S Census reports there are 110 residents in Grass Range. Despite the town’s small size, resident Ron Nelson says this farm-to-market road and bridge gets a lot of traffic.
“It gets a lot of hay traffic and a lot of cattle,” he says. “They’ll ship about 9,000-head of cattle right here. So there will be 5 to 6 semis a day pretty soon.”
Nelson remembers the day the approach to the bridge fell away.
“One guy went across and then he thought he saw a hole, so he gunned it. And he got across,” Nelson says. “Looking back down there it was all open under there. Luckily no one fell through.”
Another neighbor, Carroll Merritt says his pickup was the third vehicle across the bridge before the asphalt fell away, leaving a gap between the bridge and the road.
Fergus County officials tried unsuccessfully to barricade the washed out bridge. Residents were left with an up to 20 mile detour to get to the Post Office. After a while, some of the residents got impatient.
Merritt remembers someone decided to drop I-beams across the gap so trucks, not cars, could use the bridge.
“You had to lean out the window and get your front tire in that I-beam and then you could go onto the bridge and hit that other I-beam,” he says.
“I wouldn’t recommend that anybody cross this bridge that way,” says structural engineer and FEMA Project Specialist Gary Tubach of San Diego. Tubach was assigned to evaluate this bridge and submit the paperwork for possible federal disaster reimbursement.
“They have a wood bridge here that is pretty typical of a lot of the wood bridges that I have seen in Montana that have suffered damage from the flooding,” he says. “The old school of thought on economical bridge design was to design a bridge with the shortest span possible which meant they built the abutments within the stream itself.”
Tubach says the problem with that is when there’s a large flood event, the abutments restrict the channel which causes the water velocity to rise. He says that scours the soil around the abutments, wing walls, and the road approach pads.
He says the temporary bridge was constructed by Roscoe Bridge of Missoula out of newer, stronger materials, but it is too narrow to meet current federal bridge regulations.
Fergus County Commisioner Ken Ronish says the county considered dropping an old railroad car into the creek as a temporary bridge for Grass Range. It is what the county did for the residents near Spring Creek on Timberline Road in Lewistown, MT. “But we couldn’t sue a railroad car in Grass Range because the creek was too wide,” Ronish says. “So we put in this temporary bridge.” Ronish says the county is hoping it will be reimbursed for the cost.
FEMA spokesman John Maclean says once a Presidential Disaster Declaration is made FEMA does not rank projects based on the size of the community or the extent of damage. He says the agency takes requests for reimbursement on a case-by-case basis as they are submitted by local governments.
“Initially it is up to the locals to deal with it (pay for initial repairs or replacement),” Maclean says. “But if this is your bridge it is as important to you as a main highway in the Northeast.”
(Billings, MT-YPR) The developers of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline say they already had included safety measures meant to prevent the type of pipeline break that spilled an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil into Montana’s Yellowstone River last month.
TransCanada officials are in Montana this week. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would stretch from Alberta’s oil tar sand fields to refineries in the United States.
The approximately 1,660-mile long pipeline has been assailed by environmentalists as too risky. Opponents stepped up their criticism following the break in Exxon Mobil’s Silvertip Pipeline near Laurel, MT on July 1, 2011.
TransCanada President of Energy and Pipelines Alex Pourbaix says the Keystone XL project was designed to be the safest pipeline in North America.
“Everyone would acknowledge that Exxon’s incident with the Silvertip Pipeline was very unfortunate,” he says. “At the same time we find it concerning that many people have tried to compare the silvertip incident with the Keystone XL pipeline. And we really do believe that is completely inappropriate.”
Pourbaix says TransCanada will bury its pipeline a minimum 25 feet beneath major river crossings, exceeding current federal regulations. The proposed pipeline would cross three Montana rivers: Milk, Missouri, and Yellowstone.
Pourbaix says TransCanada made no changes to its projects proposal as a result of the Yellowstone River oil spill. Clean-up crews are still in Montana. Exxon Mobil officials are awaiting regulatory approval to rebuild its line.
The oil spill was the latest in a series of spills across the U-S. It brought Congressional scrutiny of the spider web of pipelines across the country, particularly those that cross rivers and streams.
Keystone Pipeline Project Vice President Robert Jones welcomes the increased attention. He’s not worried the spotlight will harm the Keystone XL project.
“And we try to do best practices,” Jones says.
TransCanada officials say their project exceeds current regulations, including: the use heavy wall pipe with an abrasion resistant coating; check valves will be installed at river banks; lower pressure at river crossings; regular monitoring and maintenance, and aerial patrols every two weeks.
The U.S. State Department is charged with overseeing the permit because the pipeline crosses an international border.
A final Environmental Impact Statement is expected to be released this month.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – The US Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) said today it has no intention of requiring farmers and ranchers to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to drive farm equipment or haul livestock trailers on roads.
"We want to make it absolutely clear that farmers will not be subjected to new and impractical safety regulations," said U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari. "The farm community can be confident that states will continue to follow the regulatory exemptions for farmers that have always worked so well."
FMCSA launched a review on the enforcement of regulations on agricultural operators to ensure consistent access to exemptions for farmers and to ensure public safety.
Some farm groups, however, raised an outcry. They said proposed rules under consideration could have required farmers and ranchers to obtain a CDL, a medical card and fill out a log book as if they were long-haul semi drivers.
FMCSA says it received about 1700 comments by the August 1, 2011 deadline.
FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro says the vast majority of comments called for the agency to continue to allow states to grant exemptions for agriculture.
“We want to make crystal clear that we are not imposing any new regulations,” says Ferro.
That’s good news, says Montana Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Jake Cummins. “We were assured that their intent was to improve safety so our goal was to demonstrate that in fact we operated in a safe environment already and that the closest agencies to that process were the states not the federal government back in Washington, DC,” Cummins said. “So we think this is a good outcome clearly our efforts to persuade them were successful and we’re happy to hear that.”
(Billings, MT - YPR) The last load of refinery equipment bound for the ConocoPhillips facility in Billings, MT is poised to leave for the final leg of what has been a months long, 5,200 mile journey.
The two halves of a coke drum are sitting in a large pullout atop the sandstone cliffs above the city of Billings. The loads are guarded by security and Billings City police. The transport contractor is Emmert International.
Shortly before midnight tonight, two Billings police officers will help escort the megaloads through downtown Billings to the refinery where they will join two other loads that were delivered last April. Megaloads are oversized vehicles that travel under strict restrictions: they can only move on highways at night, they must pull off the road frequently to let other cars pass.
The coke drums were manufactured in Japan. They were shipped to a port in Lewistown, Idaho. Then trucked 700 miles to its final destination in Billings, MT. The ConocoPhilips megaloads are 26 feet high, 29 feet wide, and weigh 350 tons. NPR reported that these megaloads are the biggest vehicles ever to travel on Idaho's roads.
ConocoPhillips is the third-largest U-S oil company. Officials at the oil giant say the equipment is for a $50 million coker upgrade at the Billings refinery. A coker applies heat and pressure as part of the process to convert some of the components of crude oil into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
The company had scheduled the upgrade for July 2010, but environmentalists sued to stop the transport of the megaloads along a scenic highway through Idaho. That route was along the Clearwater and Lochsa river corridor near the Idaho-Montana border. In 1968, Congress designated the corridor as part of the U-S National Wild and Scenic River System. Instead the megaloads had to take more major highways, pulling over to let traffic pass every 15 minutes.
The loads were also delayed earlier this year by winter weather and later by flooding which damaged roads along the designated route in central Montana.
A ConocoPhillips spokesman says the coke drums will sit at the refinery until they are installed, probably next year.
(Billings, Montanta) A federal proposal to require that farmers have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) before they can drive their tractors or other farm equipment on a public road is causing Montana farmers to say, whoa.
Monday is the deadline for public comments on a proposed rule change that would remove a state’s authority to decide whether they can grant agricultural exemptions. Montana has such an exemption.
Montana’s lone congressman, Denny Rehberg (R-MT) recently wrote to the administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). He told Anne Ferro to drop the proposed federal regulation.
Rehberg says this is not a partisan issue. Rather, he says, it is an urban versus rural difference in philosophy.
“This is one of those cases where it may make sense to require farm equipment in urban areas to have one standard for safety purposes and uniformity,” Rehberg says. “But it doesn’t make sense in places like Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and South Dakota and such.”
Rehberg says if there is a safety issue in rural states, then each state is in a better position to address the unique needs, concerns and safety values rather than bureaucrats in Washington, DC.
“And that’s why we’re always fighting the urban versus rural element,” Rehberg says. “They just don’t get it in downtown Chicago, downtown LA, downtown Miami. We do have a better understanding.”
The proposed federal rule change requiring a CDL would apply to anyone who drives or hauls agriculture equipment on a public road. This could be a tractor, combine, or even a pickup pulling a livestock trailer as small as 16 feet.
“It’s just a dumb idea,” says Jake Cummins, executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.
He says in addition, the proposal would require farmers and ranchers to get a medical card and fill out a log book as if they’re a long-haul semi driver.
Cummins says he was told by federal officials this change is being considered in the name of safety. He says that argument is a way to quiet down any criticism.
“And certainly the Montana Farm Bureau is all for safety,” he says. “We have a number of safety programs because we believe very strongly in it. But what we believe, as well, is that our folks are very conscious of that obligation because they and their family members are the ones most at risk if they don’t comply with safety regulations that are enforced here in the state of Montana.”
Cummins asks, if there’s such a concern about safety on the highways why aren’t the senior citizens who drive recreational vehicles, some as large as a bus, not required to get a CDL or undergo any additional training?
“I don’t want additional regulation,” he says. “But I find it unfortunate that the focus seems to be on the most productive among us.”
In response to an interview request, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration sent a copy of an op-ed written by Administrator Anne Ferro. Written e-mail questions to the office’s public affairs office were not immediately answered.
Barry “Spook” Stang is the executive vice president of the Motor Carriers of Montana. He’s also a former state legislator.
The organization hasn’t taken a position on the proposed federal rule, but Stang says his personal opinion is that if someone is driving what would be considered a commercial vehicle then they should be subject to the same safety standards as other trucks on the road.
Stang says many farm vehicles aren’t subjected to daily inspections, for example.
“And I have witnessed them going through weigh stations with no brakes and other violations of federal code that the state can’t do anything about,” Stang says. “If you got a truck that’s 26,000 pounds or larger going down the road that hasn’t been properly inspected, doesn’t go through the proper safety techniques, may be driven by somebody who hasn’t been trained to drive that truck, then I think you’re opening the people on Montana’s highways to some very unsafe conditions.”
However, Stang says the proposed federal rule makes no sense when it comes to making farmers and ranchers comply with federal hours of service and hours of driving. He says the agriculture community needs flexibility when it comes to planting or harvesting crops.
Stang also finds other parts of the federal proposal unworkable in rural states like Montana. The 2010 U-S Census pegged Montana’s population at 989,415 people.
Stang says the person driving a tractor down the road, hauling a couple of cows to the 4-H project, or horses to the rodeo shouldn’t be required to have a CDL.
“I think the [FMSCA] is a bit off base when people back East decide they’re going to tell people out here in the big open that we can’t move our tractors up and down the road unless we’re properly trained to drive a truck. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” he says.
The FMCSA has said it wants to make sure federal safety regulations are carried out uniformly across the nation and some states have asked for clarification when it comes to the agriculture industry.
But some members of Congress, like Rep. Denny Rehberg says this is a matter for states.
“One size does not fit all,” he says. “Trust me, the state of Montana and the Montana Department of Transportation get safety every bit as much as somebody sitting in Washington, DC thinking that it’s in the best interest of Montana farmers to fill out a log book to have to move their equipment from one pasture to another.”
A ConocoPhillips spokesman says its idled megaload shipments will resume travel through Montana Monday, shortly after midnight. The move comes even as judge recently blocked a much larger shipment by ExxonMobil.
The two ConocoPhillips loads are each 26 feet high, 29 feet wide, and weigh 350 tons.
By contrast, ExxonMobil/Imperial oil would have sent some 200 loads to the Tar Sand fields in Canada.. The ConocoPhillips megaload is headed for the Billings refinery, with a total of 4 vehicles; 2 loads.
Those loads have been idled since the end of May in the Deep Creek Canyon area southeast of Helena, MT.
Company spokesman Rich Johnson in Houston says spring flooding along the route through central Montana kept the loads parked until Montana Department of Transportation officials could re-inspect the roads and bridges.
Inspectors had to wait for high water levels in a number of rivers and streams to go down before they could complete that work.
“So they were recently able to complete that task and cleared us to proceed,” says Johnson.
He adds its transport contractor Emmert International also was out inspecting pullouts to make sure they were still suitable for the heavy loads.
The only change to the route is north of Lewistown in central Montana. Heavy rain has washed out a portion of a road so the loads are being detoured around the area.
The destination for the coke drums is the ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings, MT. The travel plan approved by the state of Montana only allows the megaloads to be transported between midnight and 6 am.
These are the third and fourth loads bound for the refinery. In April the first two first loads arrived.
Johnson says once transportation of the loads resumes, the equipment should arrive the first week of August.
(Billings, MT – Yellowstone Public Radio) At a Senate hearing this morning, Montana Senator Max Baucus grilled federal regulators and oil company executives about what went wrong before this month's spill on the Yellowstone River.
An ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured July 1, 2011 and spilled about 1,000 barrels of crude into the Yellowstone River near Laurel, Montana. The Silvertip pipeline provides crude to the company’s refinery in Billings.
Baucus who chairs the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, said to Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) administrator Cynthia Quarterman that the city of Laurel repeatedly raised concerns about the integrity of the pipeline but were assured by the regulatory agency and ExxonMobil everything was fine.
“Everything wasn’t okay,” said Baucus. “The pipeline ruptured. Lots of oil spilled. So what went wrong? What went wrong with the company? What went wrong with PHMSA because you agreed everything ‘yeah’ everything was okay.”
Quarterman said an investigation is underway. She added the agency does not operate the pipeline on a daily basis and came in to assist the state on their concerns about the pipeline.
Baucus interrupted and asked Quarterman: what is the agency’s role?
Quarterman said to oversee the company’s decisions. She added the inspector didn’t think he had the authority to order that the pipeline be shutdown.
“To be honest, ma’am,” said Baucus, “it sounds like you are not really on top of this. I mean that’s my impression I’m getting so far. And I urge you to get more on top of it.”
Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) asked ExxonMobil Pipeline Company president Gary Pruessing about a list of concerns he regarding the Silvertip pipeline. “I’m sure you are aware of these,” Lautenberg said holding up the list. “Would you say they’re minor?”
“Senator, anytime that an item is identified by the regulatory agency we need to respond to it quickly,” said Pruessing. He said those items were addressed.
Lautenberg said the fact that concerns were raised by the regulatory agency did not sound efficient to him. “There seemed to be a series of things that needed attention and why they had to be called to the attention of a company like ExxonMobil to avoid problems,” he said. “It looks like these things were leading up to a problem and ultimately resulted in this terrible accident.”
“Well we certainly take our responsibilities very seriously,” said Pruessing. Lautenberg interrupted: “Well, it doesn’t suggest it. The list of these.”
The New Jersey Democrat requested his list be entered into the subcommittee’s record, and Baucus agreed. He said the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee would accept written testimony on the Yellowstone River Oil Spill for two weeks.
For more about the hearing, and to view an archived video of it, go here.
(Billings, MT – Yellowstone Public Radio) – ExxonMobil officials say its Billings, Montana-based refinery is operating at a reduced capacity following its pipeline break earlier this month. But officials say no employees will be laid off.
The company’s Silvertip Pipeline broke July 1, 2011 and spilled an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude oil into the wild and scenic Yellowstone River.
Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Karen Matusic of Dallas says that pipeline is the Billings refinery main supplier of US and Canadian crude.
“What we’re doing right now is we’re continuing to work very diligently to identify all available crude supply to allow us to continue operating the refinery,” she says. “What we’re doing now is we’re getting alternative supplies from another pipeline, from truck, and we’re also considering rail deliveries into the refinery.”
Matusic says if any units are idled because of reduced supply, those employees will instead work on maintenance, repair and clean-up.
“Fortunately, we’re able to keep everybody at work,” she says.
US Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) says anytime there is an environmental disaster, like a pipeline bursting, “we always think about the environmental impacts. When in fact there are other impacts too. And we felt that the jobs side of this was very important too. These are good jobs and it’s important that we keep those folks working.”
Tester received a letter from ExxonMobil President Sherman Glass, Jr. assuring that there are no plans to layoff any workers at the Billings refinery in the foreseeable future.
The farmer from Big Sandy, MT, says another concern from the oil pipeline break or reduced operations at the Billings refinery is any potential impact on gasoline prices.
“I had the question whether it will drive gas prices up,” Tester says. “I don’t believe it should. I hope it does not.”
Matusic says while she can’t directly comment on gasoline prices, “the good thing is we expect to meet all of our gasoline contract commitments for the foreseeable future despite the impacts to the refinery operations as a result of the pipeline breach.”
She says the company will also be getting gasoline supplies from other areas.
“We’re doing all we can to mitigate the impact on the local consumers, on the local economy, and the local workforce,” Matusic says. “Which is why this pipeline (Silvertip) is so critical to ensuring crude supply to our refinery. So expediting the restoration and restart of this pipeline is a key solution for the longer term.”
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in the US Department of Transportation is the regulatory agency that oversees pipelines, like Silvertip.
Teams continue work to assess and clean-up damage from the pipeline break earlier this month near Laurel, MT. Over the weekend, state and federal officials oversaw ExxonMobil Pipeline Company’s removal of all of the residual oil and oily water mixture from the two segments of broken pipe on either side of the break location from the Yellowstone River. Officials say that eliminated the threat of secondary releases of crude from the ruptured pipeline.
With dropping river levels, teams have been able to launch boat. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has reported 19 animals have been seen, but not yet been captured. This includes a bald eagle. Karen Nelson of the USFWS says officials are working to capture the eagle so oil can be removed. She says they believe it will not survive the winter unless that oil is washed off.
The Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure has scheduled a hearing on the Yellowstone River oil spill. Montana Senator Max Baucus chairs that committee.
(Billings, MT – Yellowstone Public Radio) – Amtrak will restore daily service along its northern Empire Builder route between Chicago and Seattle/Portland on Sunday. Recent flooding in North Dakota had closed portions of that route.
Amtrak officials say resumption of service is the result of repairs by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Amtrak uses the BNSF tracks.
"We appreciate the patience of our customers and the work being done by Amtrak and BNSF employees to restore service," said Daryl Pesce, the Chicago-based Amtrak General Superintendent. "Amtrak and the predecessors of BNSF have together operated the Empire Builder since 1929 and no one can recall as much flooding and disruption on the route in these 82 years."
Flooding damaged Amtrak’s station and boarding platform in Minot, North Dakota. The facilities remain closed until repairs are completed. Amtrak officials say service in Minot cannot resume until those repairs are made in the next month.
Beginning Sunday, the Empire Builder will return service to previously missed stops in Eastern Montana, North Dakota, and Western Minnesota.
(Billings, MT – Yellowstone Public Radio) - Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer says pipelines will continue to be part of the state’s landscape -- despite a recent spill--and he hopes regulators will give a green light constructing another one.
On July 1, 2011, an ExxonMobil pipeline spilled an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil into the Wild and Scenic Yellowstone River.
TransCanada wants to build a pipeline -- the Keystone XL -- that will carry crude from oil fields in Alberta Canada, through Montana and on to Cushing, Oklahoma.
Schweitzer, a Democrat, says federal regulators will decide whether the Keystone XL pipeline becomes a reality. He added that it would be an opportunity lost, however, if the pipeline isn’t built.
“The Keystone represents about 5% of the oil we use in this country. There’s a lot of oil in Alberta,” Schweitzer said. “I would rather buy it from our neighbors to the north than I would from petro-dictators in Africa or the Middle East.”
Schweitzer spoke in Billings Wednesday to a group of landowners who have property along the Yellowstone River affected by the oil spill.
Citing the Yellowstone River oil spill, environmentalists have stepped up opposition to the Keystone XL project
An estimated 79 protesters, some affiliated with the group Rising Tide North America, some with Earth First!, demonstrated on Tuesday at the State Capitol in Helena. They demanded a meeting with Schweitzer. Eventually, the governor agreed to meet with the group in the reception room.
The meeting broke up after someone started playing a piano in the room and about a dozen protesters jumped on the large tables and began dancing and stomping their feet. Schweitzer left, and five protesters were later arrested. They pleaded not guilty in Helena Municipal Court. The protesters were released without bail Tuesday on the conditions that they remain law abiding and stay away from the Capitol.
During a public meeting in Billings the next day, Schweitzer was asked about the incident. “Well, some of the folks who don’t like the Keystone are snappy dressers -- and good dancers, I found out,” he quipped.
He said there will be pipelines built in Montana in the future because the state has oil and cars use it. There is a current oil boom in eastern Montana and northern North Dakota.
“Look, any new pipeline that’s going to be built in Montana is going to be built to the most modern up-to-date standards,” he said. He said the alternative is to transport crude and gasoline by semi trucks or trains, but those are not fail-safe either. “Through time we’ve found that these pipelines are probably safer than some of the other ways of moving oil and gasoline around."
Schweitzer says while no one wants breaks to occur, as long as we continue to use gasoline, citizens in some way accept that accidents can and do happen.
“And so we’re going to hold this company (ExxonMobil) and other companies that have spilled oil, they understand that it’s their liability. They understand that it's their mistake and they’re responsible for this effort. But until we don’t use oil anymore we all have some responsibility here,” Schweitzer says.
ExxonMobil officials said continuing high and fast water in the Yellowstone River is hampering efforts to determine why the Silvertip Pipeline broke. The pipeline carries oil from fields in Wyoming to an ExxonMobil refinery in Billings, Montana.
During a Congressional hearing today on the pipeline break, company officials said if regulators approve, the tentative plan is to replace the Silvertip pipeline with new technology.
Pipelines are regulated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Adminsitration (PMHSA) in the US Department of Transportation.
(Billings, MT - Yellowstone Public Radio) --An oil pipeline break earlier this month that sent 1,000 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River has soiled river banks and vegetation, and may have impacted the areas fisheries and wildlife. Continued high, fast-flowing water is hampering assessment efforts -- but a Congressional committee wants answers.
The director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality sent a letter this week to ExxonMobil's CEO demanding an explanation from the Houston-based company about how much oil spilled into the river. Some estimates put the amount of oil at 42,000 gallons.
At the time of the break water in the Yellowstone River near Billings was running high and fast at or near flood stage. As of yesterday, U-S Environmental Protection Agency officials overseeing the cleanup said between 1-5% of the spilled oil has been recovered.
The Silvertip Pipeliine is a 12-inch diameter pipeline that transports crude from Elk Basin, Wyoming to the ExxonMobile refinery in Billings, Montana. The pipe broke late Friday night near Laurel, Montana, a community about 15 miles west of Billings in south-central Montana.
At this time the cause of the spill has not been determined.
The U-S Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is the primary federal agency that oversees the safety of energy pipelines.
On Thursday, the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials is scheduled to hold a hearing on Silvertip Pipeline break. Witnesses called: PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman, ExxonMobil President Gary Pruessing, and National Wildlife scientist Douglas Inkley.
In the meantime, cleanup continues. Falling river levels finally allowed cleanup teams on Monday to launch boats in flooded areas where the river has jumped its banks. Oil has been sighted as far downstream as 90 miles downstream, although the fast moving river and the vast distances is making it difficult for officials to verify landowner sightings.
The response time lag and ExxonMobil's response to landowner concerns prompted the State of Montana to pull staff out of the unified command team directing the cleanup. (http://www.epa.gov/yellowstoneriverspill/) Instead, Governor Brian Schweitzer opened the state's own office. (http://yellowstoneriveroilspill.mt.gov/).
A public meeting is scheduled at 6:30 pm in Laurel, Montana to give area residents an update on the cleanup. Claims officials are also expected to be on site.
Ongoing flooding has temporarily suspended passenger rail service between St. Paul, MN and Havre, MT. Amtrak officials in Chicago say no alternate transportation is available between those destinations until further notice.
Passengers on the Empire Builder route traveling from Seattle, WA and Portland, OR can get to Spokane, WA and continue east to Idaho and Montana until Havre. This includes stops in Whitefish, East and West Glacier, and Essex near Glacier National Park.
For those passengers traveling west from Chicago, the Empire Builder route will continue to serve Wisconsin and west until St. Paul, MN.
Passengers on the Amtrak California Zephyr will find service temporarily suspended between Denver and Chicago. Amtrak officials say eastbound service from Emeryville, CA is suspended only on June 29, 2011. The next day, westbound service from Chicago will be suspended. Amtrak officials say this is due to rail car and train crew availability caused by flooding in the Omaha, NE area.
Amtrak says this information is subject to change. Passengers are encouraged to call 800-USA-RAIL or go to www.Amtrak.com for schedule information and train status updates.
A 2005 study conducted for the American Trucking Association (ATA) forecast a 20,000 shortage of drivers nationwide. The report says by 2014 that figure is projected at 111,000.
Ray Kuntz of Helena, Montana is the CEO of Watkins and Shepard Trucking, Inc and the past chairman of the ATA. He led a nationwide recruiting campaign for drivers in 2007.
Kuntz says there are many reasons why there’s a shortage but he says the biggest one is most of their drivers are male and near 55 years old.
“That demographic is shrinking,” he says.
Kuntz says many of today’s drivers are beginning to retire. He says the trucking industry needs to reach out to minorities and women to fill the gap.
He says there’s added pressure because the current oil boom in the Bakken Oil Field in the Williston basin.
“The oil patch needs a lot of drivers,” he says. He says each oil well needs support from at least 800 loads of water, pipe, and other drilling material. “After you hit oil you need a truck to get that oil to a pipeline or somewhere to get it off the field. So if we’re going to continue to develop oil in western North Dakota and eastern Montana we need a lot more truck drivers to do that.”
Right now, many of those truck drivers for the Bakken fields are being lured away from other companies.
Willie Duffield owns a small trucking company - Duffield Express -- based in Forsyth, Montana. He’s one of the independent contractors hired by FedEx Ground. Duffield says FedEx has stringent rules for drivers so he has a hard time finding the right person for that job.
“We get drivers qualified. Put ‘em on a truck for FedEx and with the oil boom going on over there I’ve had 3 of ‘em quit and go to work over in Williston,” he says.
Duffield says he pays on average $1,000 a week but in the oil patch drivers are making 3 to 5 times that. “And we just can’t compete with that,” he says.
He says his other drivers who deliver products to the Williston Basin get courted by companies there and hired away. He calls the experience frustrating. Duffield says it’s hurting the viability of Duffield Express.
He says he had 3 trucks sitting idle for the first four months of this year because he couldn’t find drivers.
“You got a $175,000 rig sitting there and not doing anything, it has a big impact on your bottom line,” he says.
Even a large trucking company like Watkins & Shepard is impacted by the demand for drivers.
CEO Ray Kuntz says he’s having to spend more money to try to keep drivers and paying more for additional training.
“We’re doing fairly well right now, but it’s kinda luck of the draw,” he says. “We’ve had as many as 40 trucks without drivers at times. Today we’re pretty full.”
Kuntz and Duffield say it’s ironic at a time when the trucking industry is so desperate for licensed, qualified drivers there’s record unemployment nationwide. But they add truck driving is not for everyone. They says drivers need training and a commercial driving license to be considered. Then, they say, the driver has to have a spotless driving record, undergo regular drug testing, and comply with growing federal regulations.
Kuntz says addressing the semi-truck driver shortage is critical if the economy is to recover. He says, in Montana alone, over 80 percent of every product that comes in and out of the state comes on a truck.
“So without us, the economy is dead,” he says.
Kuntz says the same is true for the national economy as manufacturing starts to pick up.