Battle line on the northern border


In Montana’s Flathead Basin, another industry–versus-environment conflict is brewing. But this time, the battle lines follow the U.S. – Canada border. Montana senators, federal agencies, and even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are trying to stop a planned mine just north of the border.

Cline Mining Corporation is seeking British Columbia’s approval for a mountaintop mine just above the headwaters of the North Fork of the Flathead River. The mine would produce 2 million tons of coal per year to be shipped to China.

The Flathead Basin, which stretches from northern Montana into Canada, hosts the highest density of grizzly bears in interior North America, and threatened bull trout spawn in its streams. Studies show that the mine would pollute water and destroy fish habitat by increasing levels of nitrate, sediment and selenium. It could also harm larger carnivores, including the grizzly.

It’s not the first time companies have tried to mine the Flathead. In the 1980s, when Sage Crick Corp. proposed a coal mine, Montana Sen. Max Baucus, D, appealed to the International Joint Commission, a binational organization established to help resolve water disputes. After three years of investigation, the commission recommended against mine approval, citing the impacts mining would have on the area’s water and habitat. Montana and federal officials hold that those findings apply equally to the Cline mine proposal.

But the company is moving ahead; it’s nearly done with the first step in British Columbia’s permitting process, scoping out the issues that have to be addressed in a formal application. The state of Montana and the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. State Department have all commented, outlining their concerns about potential downstream impacts, but “most of the comments were not included in the (permit) document,” says Rich Moy, chairman of the nonprofit Flathead Basin Commission.

That omission prompted Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D, to draft a letter to the Canadian government calling for a more extensive environmental assessment. Canadian Ambassador Michael Wilson promised an environmental review, but didn't specify how thorough it would be. So, at the behest of Sen. Baucus, Secretary of State Rice will meet with her Canadian counterpart and request a rigorous look at mining impacts.

Cline Mining Corp. plans to submit its application this fall. In the meantime, groups like the National Parks Conservation Association are working to raise awareness among government officials on both sides of the border about the value of the basin area. “The response (to the coal mine) has been so strong,” says Will Hammerquist, program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, “because this place means so much for so many people. It’s a special place. People don’t want to put that at risk.”
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