Dark passage 

Imperial Oil generates mixed feelings along Highway 200

The usual parade of concerned Missoula citizens put Imperial Oil representative Ken Johnson on the hot seat during an April 29 hearing over the shipping of mining equipment through western Montana. Public outrage over the loads, which are two lanes wide and three-quarters of a football field in length, dominated the four-hour meeting, with officials from the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) struggling to retake the floor.

Of the more than 200 Missoula area residents at the meeting, the majority seemed convinced that Imperial Oil's Kearl Module Transportation Project (KMTP) will spell disaster for the region. But while Missoula residents complain, there's a far different story playing out along the Highway 200 corridor to the east, where small communities aren't so quick to demonize the ExxonMobil-held oil firm. Some residents and civic leaders even consider the enormous loads an economic boon for Montana and, more specifically, rural businesses.

"My personal feeling is that, for Lincoln, it's going to help," says Jim Paris, chair of the Lincoln Community Council and owner of the Spring Creek RV Park. "From the way the plan is now, some of the convoys will be spending time in the Lincoln area, and that should help the motels and cafés and things like that. Considering the size of the convoys, I'd say there should be benefit."

Imperial Oil's junket through Cut Bank and Lincoln last week revealed a strong base of support for the proposed KMTP. Forty-seven people attended an April 28 meeting in Lincoln, and the same presentation that generated so much protest among Missoulians left the community reassured that Imperial Oil's shipments would not radically change day-to-day life.

"The company's been very good in explaining what the loads are going to be, how they're going to move them, how they're going to meet the problems of traffic flow," Paris says. "I don't think there's been any opposition to it in the community."

Imperial Oil has proven adept at selling its pitch outside Missoula. Lewis and Clark County Commission Chair Mike Murray says those in the Lincoln and Augusta areas are holding out hope that the KMTP will bring temporary jobs to county residents. Big-rig drivers camped outside rural towns will probably patronize local businesses like Lambkin's Restaurant, he adds. Gov. Brian Schweitzer also announced his support of the plan this week based largely on economic stimulus.

There's a much simpler explanation for Lincoln's embrace of Imperial Oil, however. Most simply don't see any detriment in allowing the nighttime loads to pass through. Murray says broader issues like the ethics of aiding tar sands mining in Alberta—a rallying point for Missoula activists—hardly made a splash at the Lincoln meeting.

"Some of the senior citizens in [Lincoln and Augusta], their concern was they're going to have to stay up late to watch the loads pass through," he says. "That was their issue."

With daytime shipments ruled out, Shane Erickson doesn't see a problem either. Highway 200 is a key artery for his Lincoln-based God's Country Outfitters. But over the past 15 years, his duties running hunters and fishermen to and from the field haven't had him on the road earlier than 5:30 a.m.—about the time KMTP drivers will pull over for the day.

"If they stick to nighttime travel, I can't see how that would really affect me or any outfitter I know too much," Erickson says. "There could be an instance here or there, but certainly nothing I think anyone would get too upset about. It's providing jobs for somebody out there, and we sure need that at this time...People coming through are going to be spending money, they're going to be buying fuel...It could mean jobs kept even in this area."

But a degree of skepticism persists along Highway 200, represented at the Lincoln meeting by a small Ovandocontingent full of questions. Kathy Schoendoerfer, co-owner of the Blackfoot Angler fly shop, says she finds it hard to trust a billion-dollar international company when they promise benefits like $68 million in economic activity.

"We're talking about a company that has more money than small countries," Schoendoerfer says. "Can we trust them? If they're going to make that much money, why do they have to use what we call a scenic corridor?"

Schoendoerfer says that, while others may applaud the potential benefits of the KMTP, Ovando business owners are erring on the side of caution. It's not that they're opposed to the plan. Schoendoerfer says they're simply sick of fighting battles, like the 2008 opposition to a cell tower and the 2009 stand against recreation permits on the Blackfoot River.

"I can speak on behalf of the [Ovando] business owners that, if they keep to their promises, there shouldn't be a problem," she says.

One aspect of Imperial Oil's plan could garner universal condemnation in western Montana, though. Missoula and its rural neighbors alike fear that approving one such project could set a precedent for Highway 200 as a permanent corridor for abnormally high-and-wide loads. No one, except maybe the business interests in Lincoln, sounds eager to see that reality pan out.

"I want to see it in writing that this isn't going to continue down the line," Schoendoerfer says. "We could probably all live with one year of this, but none of us believe that October 2011 is going to be the end of it."

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