(Helena, Montana -- Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) - It's described as "heavier than the Statue of Liberty, nearly as long as a football field, wider than the roads that they’re actually traveling on, and three stories high."
A so-called megaload of refinery equipment bound for a ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings is just east of the Idaho-Montana border, poised to make a circuitous 500-odd mile trip from the Lolo National Forest, and winding up to Roy, before making its way back down to a refinery near Billings.
These first of four coke drum shipments were trucked in from the Port in Lewiston, Idaho along the scenic Lochsa River corridor and along the boundaries of wilderness areas and national forest land. When the second shipment arrives, they will travel together to the south central Montana refinery.
Some Montana residents are concerned these loads will spawn an industrial megaload corridor that will cause excessive wear and tear on roads and bridges.
So Montana lawmakers are considering House Bill 507, which would require industrial equipment on Montana highways to obtain a new, special-use permit.
Zack Porter is the campaign coordinator for the group “All Against the Haul.” He says Montana lacks a current state regulatory statute to deal with megaloads. "We do not use the word megaloads lightly," he says. "Today’s highway infrastructure, much less those bridges that were built in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s in this state , wasn't built to handle this type of equipment.”
But Jim Lynch, the director of the Montana Department of Transportation, says the process already exists to evaluate and analyze the state’s roads, the hauling equipment, how that load will impact the roadways and make sure it won’t violate the federal bridge laws.
Lynch adds there’s also an environmental assessment conducted under the guidelines of the Montana Environmental Policy Act, as well as a safety plan, and an emergency plan.
“We permit a lot of megaloads,” Lynch says. “This is not the first megaload that has ever been permitted. It happens on a regular basis in Montana.”
Lynch says ConocoPhillips has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the state of Montana that the company will pay for any damage now or in the future even if MDOT has made an error. He adds the company has also posted a $10 million bond. Lynch says that’s to ensure Montanans don’t pay for any possible damage.
Lynch says there are laws in Montana that govern the actions state agencies like his take.
“And I can assure the public,” he says, “that the Montana Department of Transportation did just that follow the existing laws. We can’t make up the laws as we go. We have to enforce the laws of the state of Montana equally among all the users of the highway system.”
During the hearing, Lynch did not speak either for or against HB 507.
MDOT also recently granted final approval to Exxon Mobil Corporation to move large loads of refinery equipment bound for Canada’s oil tar sand fields. Under the newly approved plan, 207 loads of Imperial Oil equipment will move from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho, through Montana and north to the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada.
Opponents of HB 507 said the bill impedes commerce by delaying the issuing of permits.
Dave Galt represents the Montana Petroleum Association. He’s also a former Montana DOT director.
“The purpose of the Interstate system, the strategic highway system, the national network of highway systems, and the federal funding formulas that come to Montana are premised upon the fact that we need a system to move goods across the country,” he says.
And other opponents of the bill say the definition of a megaload in the bill would delay the transport of a number of goods, including wind turbines, large cranes used in construction, and other mining and drilling equipment bound for Montana work sites.
But supporters of the bill say megaloads could harm their small outfitting and guiding businesses by driving away tourists or causing an inconvenience. And they say this bill will ensure safety for other highway users.
The House Transportation did not immediately vote on HB 507.