Coal company takes refuge in a blind spot

by Hilary Watts

Last spring, the government of British Columbia allowed Montanans only four days to comment on plans for an open-pit coal mine six miles north of Glacier National Park. To environmentalists on both sides of the border, who have fought similar mine proposals for three decades, the hurry seemed suspicious. Montana’s congressional delegation, along with many tourism-related businesses, also expressed concern. Initially, it seemed that Cline Mining Corp., based in Sudbury, Ontario, would back off.

In fact, however, the company quietly shifted its aim 20 miles north, to a site along Foisey Creek, in the headwaters of the North Fork Flathead River, which flows along the park’s edge and into Montana’s spectacular Flathead Lake. In November, without any advance public notice this time, British Columbia granted Cline a permit for exploratory drilling at the new site. The company says that if the mine proves feasible, it would produce 1 million to 2 million tons of coal per year.

David Thomas, a city councilor in Fernie, British Columbia, says the province’s Ministry of Energy and Mines is trying to sneak this mine into existence by using "subterfuge." Opponents warn that such a large open-pit mine would endanger downstream water quality and habitat for grizzly bears, bull trout and other imperiled wildlife. They want a thorough assessment of the potential impacts of both mining and coal-bed methane drilling (proposed by the British Columbia government) on the Flathead River drainage before any leasing or development takes place. And they’re calling for the Canadian and U.S. federal governments to take the dispute to the International Joint Commission, which handles water issues that cross the border. In 1988, the IJC decided against a mine that was proposed in the same watershed.

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