Earlier this year, Oregon-based Harris Thermal Transfer Products broke ground on a massive new fabrication facility near the old Stimson Lumber mill in Bonner. Once completed, general manager Eric Groenweghe says the 35,000-square-foot plant will hopefully allow Harris Thermal to expand its business to the eastern United States and make it more competitive with other pressure vessel and heat exchanger companies in Texas. But the 116-acre site the company purchased from Western Montana Development last year also puts Harris Thermal in an ideal geographic position to increase its production for industrial clients in the Alberta tar sands.
Missoula has already gotten a glimpse of the company’s larger-scale works. This winter, transport company Omega Morgan trucked three giant Harris Thermal-made evaporators through Montana en route to the Alberta tar sands. Legal proceedings in Idaho prevented two of the megaloads—manufactured for a GE subsidiary called Resources Conservation Company International—from traveling up Highway 12. However, with fewer oppositional voices to megaload shipments along the Blackfoot River corridor and the Rocky Mountain Front, highways 200 and 93 remain a viable path for Canada-bound oversized equipment.
Groenweghe says that while Harris Thermal does have several clients active in the tar sands, such equipment is only a small part of the company’s interest in establishing a facility in Missoula. The plan with Harris Manufacturing, the Montana-based subsidiary created last November, is to mirror much of what Harris Thermal already does at its West Coast base—namely, construct heat exchangers, pressure vessels and wastewater treatment equipment for a host of industries including pulp and paper.
“If you look at the entire picture of what we’re planning and wanting to do in Missoula, it’s not just [to] build megaloads and send them up to Canada,” Groenweghe says. “That’s not our intention. We want to expand our business … and the best way to expand our business is to open a facility in a more logistically attractive and financially attractive area.”
Groenweghe estimates that when the plant is complete, Harris Manufacturing will employ 25 to 30 individuals. Those would primarily be skilled jobs like welding, he adds, and the company is actively working to forge a partnership with Missoula College with the goal of offering employment opportunities to recent graduates. If construction continues on schedule, Harris Manufacturing intends to begin operations this fall.
“We think there’s a good, available workforce there in skilled jobs considering the closure of the Stimson mill site, the closure of Smurfit-Stone,” Groenweghe says. “The hope is that we might actually draw some people that have moved away back.”
If Harris Manufacturing does succeed in expanding its tar sands clientele, the effort could benefit from conversations currently taking place among Montana lawmakers. The legislature’s Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee met in early May in part to discuss a study of megaloads and explore any impediments to the “private, cooperative funding of routes to accommodate oversize vehicles.” Several trade groups have grown increasingly critical of the separate permit and fees Missoula city officials require of oversized loads, and pressure is building among Republicans in Helena to officially identify a specific highway corridor for megaload traffic through the state.
A key part of the informal corridor that oversized loads have utilized so far stretches north and east beyond Bonner. Critics have argued for nearly five years that megaload shipments on Highway 200 along the Blackfoot River could present a host of public safety and environmental concerns. With the legal saga on Highway 12 now over, Highway 200 could become the next battleground for megaload opposition.
“If, in its wisdom, the state of Montana decides that a high and wide corridor is necessary, then I would hope that we would look to what happened in Idaho along Highway 12—the Lochsa [River], the Wild and Scenic Highway, which is now permanently forbidden as a route for megaloads—and consider Highway 200 equally valuable to those of us in western Montana,” Susan Estep, a Missoula resident and cofounder of the regional nonprofit All Against the Haul, told the interim committee May 6.
However, some in Montana’s business community see broader opportunity in oversized load traffic. Glenn Oppel, government relations director for the Montana Chamber of Commerce, wrote to the committee in early May that the lack of a clearly defined corridor “serves as yet another disincentive for businesses, in particular manufacturers, to locate in Montana.” Oppel attributed the interest in establishing facilities in Montana directly to the state’s proximity to the tar sands and the Bakken oil fields.
For several years now, the Missoula Economic Partnership has been touting that geographic closeness in the hopes of attracting new business from the manufacturing sector. The organization bills Interstate 90 and highways 200 and 93 as a “convenient corridor to the Canadian oil sands,” and the branding has proven effective. Back in November 2012, MEP President and CEO James Grunke told the Missoula City Council that his office was receiving multiple calls each month from companies interested in relocating closer to the Canadian border.
Harris Manufacturing marks the biggest success for MEP in that effort so far. Groenweghe says after the company expressed an initial interest in a Missoula area facility, MEP proved invaluable in “getting us information and helping us through this process.” He understands that some in Missoula haven’t been particularly keen on megaloads over the past few years and might take issue with tar sands-destined equipment being manufactured right here. But most of what Harris Manufacturing plans to do is much smaller in scale. He feels that even if oversized load production increases, it won’t have a negative or even tangible impact on the community.
“I don’t think you’re going to notice,” he says. “It certainly won’t be anything bigger than what you’ve already seen go through there.”