Notable Montana officials have contracted an ocular disease: They can't see the forest for the trees and stare myopically at promised dollar signs offered by mega-loads traversing our highways, while the real value of Montana's landscape, rivers and economy recedes into a hazy blur.
Montana citizens have requested that the state coordinate with federal entities to complete an extensive review of the mega-load project under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—and with good reason. In July 2009 Montana Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch stated, "We are setting the stage for a high wide corridor through the State of Montana probably to be used for things we haven't even imagined yet."
What are the consequences of a permanent mega-load corridor in Montana? Are there alternatives? Where is the research considering impacts on our safety on narrow roadways in bad weather? On our travel routes? On our property values? On our recreation economy? On our rivers? On our fish and wildlife?
We Montanans don't need outsiders to tell us of the obvious dangers of the mega-load projects, but we can learn from the experience of others.
Other states have not fared well dealing with either big companies or mega-load corridors. In Texas, rural counties struggle to maintain roadways damaged by mega-load vehicles. "We've seen a lot of our roadways have base [problems], edges drop off, rutting, bridge hits, shoulder damage," commented Jodi Hodges, a public information officer in the Texas DOT's Fort Worth district, in a recent article in the Texas Tribune. Texans have learned the hard way that the big companies rarely pay the costs of the road damage they inflict. In one county alone, taxpayers were forced to foot a $23 million dollar bill for road repairs due to damage from similarly sized shipments as the ones proposed for Montana.
Perhaps worst of all, we have been misled about the duration of the projects. There is no question that this will be a permanent corridor. Hardly had we learned about one project, months after Idaho state officials had already given their blessing, than evidence of a continuing series of future projects surfaced. Three proposals are publicly known, and it's likely other plans are in the works. As Lynch commented in July, 2009, "We're not talking about one load, we're talking about an operation for an extended period of time—it's a major impact on the state."
As residents of Bonner Milltown, we're privileged to live at the confluence of two magnificent rivers. We see citizens in the Blackfoot Challenge working to restore the Blackfoot River; we see $6 million spent to clean up PCBs in the mill pond on the Blackfoot; we see $120 million spent to clean the aquifer and restore the confluence of the Clark Fork River in Milltown. Once upon a time, the activities creating the source of this pollution seemed to be a good idea, at least to corporations like Anaconda. If only more care had been taken before the degradation occurred...
Montana has no need to repeat the sadder chapters of its history. It's time to prove we've learned from past mistakes—that we are capable of avoiding disaster by doing things right the first time. In Bonner Milltown we have learned to look beyond the trees to see the forest. We request that our state officials do no less.
Friends of 2 Rivers