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Big rigs spark MEPA bill

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The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) has yet to green-light Imperial Oil's plan to lug massive oil sands modules through the state. But if it does, Missoula Rep. Carol Williams is gearing up to ensure that the next procession of "big rigs" won't be waved through so easily.

Williams is currently working on draft legislation aimed at revising the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), the state's bedrock environmental law.

"The two things I'm looking at," she says, "are extending that comment period so it gives people more time to get their thoughts into the department, and then also to say you have to have an EIS [environmental impact statement] to do anything this extensive."

The EIS requirement and a longer public comment period were MEPA requirements, Williams explains, until they were stripped during the 2001 and 2003 legislative sessions.

"During the Martz administration everybody was running around trying to see how we could make it easier on business to do business," she says.

Earlier in the year Imperial Oil, an ExxonMobil subsidiary, asked MDT to approve a permit that would allow the company to transport more than 200 oil processing modules—weighing some 170 tons and measuring 24 feet wide, 30 feet high and up to 210 feet long—over Lolo Pass and through Missoula en route to the Port of Sweetgrass. The 300-mile Montana leg would constitute just one segment of the equipment's journey from South Korea to the Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta. Accommodating the rigs requires about $22 million worth of highway modifications.

The project, according to Williams and many of its opponents, ought to be subject to more thorough environmental scrutiny.

"They shouldn't have been taken out in the first place," Williams says of MEPA's original EIS and public comment requirements. "We had the best environmental protection laws in the country at the time, and now we don't. At least we're not as bad as Idaho...but I don't think that's particularly something to brag about."

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