With U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wading into the issue, Montana has called in the big guns to combat the proposed Cline coalmine project in the headwaters of the Flathead River’s North Fork in British Columbia.
At the urging of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Rice pressed the Canadian federal government last month to invoke a more stringent environmental assessment of the proposed mine’s impacts than British Columbia’s government requires.
As of this writing, the Canadian federal government has not yet formally invoked its environmental assessment act. Until it does, the B.C. government retains authority over the mine’s permitting process.
But Montana’s strident opposition to the coalmine is causing some B.C. lawmakers to bristle at what they perceive as the United States dictating to them how they should develop their natural resources.
The friction reveals a similarity between Montana and its neighbor to the north: Neither likes to be told what to do.
In a fractious March 29 debate within British Columbia’s parliament, East Vancouver lawmaker Shane Simpson echoed the concerns of many in the U.S. when he attacked B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner for eroding the province’s environmental assessment process and failing to consider Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s concerns on the Cline mine proposal.
“The governor’s concern is that the terms of reference do not extend beyond the footprint of the mine and the haul road and do nothing – absolutely nothing – to look at the impacts of the mine downriver and into the Flathead basin,” Simpson said. “Nor do they provide sufficient detail regarding the cumulative impacts, including the impacts of the mine on internationally significant wildlife populations.”
Penner shot back by thanking “the member from Montana” for his comments and criticizing Montana’s environmental record as well as confusing it with Wyoming’s, where the coalbed methane development dwarfs Montana’s.
“Any day of the week, I will gladly put our environmental record up against Montana’s environmental record,” Penner said, “where they literally have thousands of coalbed methane wells. They have coal-fired generation.”
Until the Canadian federal government intervenes, the decision over whether to green-light the Cline mine ultimately rests with Penner and Richard Neufeld, B.C.’s Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.
Some Flathead Valley experts who have studied the issue warn that despite the reassuring intervention of the State Department, the threat of the Cline mine remains very real, particularly in light of the B.C. government’s track record when it comes to permitting mines.
Ken Bates, CEO of Cline Mining Corp., said he was unaware the Canadian federal government planned to take up his proposal on the North Fork, but that his company would follow through with the application process regardless of international opposition.
“We’re a company doing our job,” Bates said. “We’re doing it and we’re no different than any other mine and many mines have been permitted in B.C.”
British Columbia has never denied a mining permit, according to Caryn Miske, executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission.
“The B.C. government ultimately has a lot of discretion,” Miske said. “If history holds true, the odds aren’t very good of B.C. stepping in to deny (the permit).”
Garry Alexander, who is overseeing the Cline mine proposal at B.C.’s environmental assessment office, confirmed his agency has yet to deny a permit, but adds that many mining permits become bogged down in the application process and are abandoned.
“I’m not aware of any (applications) that have been rejected, but there aren’t that many that have been approved,” Alexander said.
The Cline Mining Corporation’s proposal to extract 40 million tons of coal over the next 20 years from a mountaintop about 25 miles north of the U.S.-Canadian border has exploded into an international controversy since its announcement last year. Cline intends to export the high-grade coal to Asia for steel development.
The proposed mine’s location along Foisey Creek, which empties into the North Fork of the Flathead River, would be the watershed’s first coalmine.
The mining activity could contaminate the North Fork with pollutants including nitrates, phosphorus and the toxic metal selenium, Miske said, resulting in a severe degradation of the Flathead River’s water quality and harming fragile wildlife.
Chief among the potentially affected fauna is the bull trout. Miske estimates as much as 37 percent of the Flathead River’s bull trout spawning area sits directly adjacent to the site of the proposed mine. She points west to the Elk River, with five coalmines within its watershed, as a potential glimpse of the Flathead’s future. Recent studies show high levels of selenium and a significant reduction in biodiversity within the Elk River, Miske said.
The Cline mine’s permitting process is in its earliest stages and the B.C. environmental assessment office is currently working on a final draft of the terms of reference, which outlines the environmental standards Cline’s application must meet. Once Cline receives the terms of reference, it could take six months or longer to assemble its application. The application may also require Cline to do years of scientific study on the region’s wildlife and water before breaking ground on the mine.
The Canadian federal department of Fisheries and Oceans is currently studying the Cline proposal to recommend to the Ministry of the Environment the scope of the national government’s assessment for the mine.
U.S. officials are confident the Canadian government will soon step in.
“It is not in stone,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., but added he has “gotten word” Canada will soon invoke its federal environmental assessment act, known as CEAA.
But Miske fears Canada will trigger a watered-down version under Section 5 of CEAA, that applies only to fisheries and fails to account for the larger, trans-boundary and cumulative impacts of the mine. In that case, Miske said, the Canadian federal government’s intervention would mean little.
“Invoking Section 5 is better than nothing, but it’s not much better than nothing,” Miske added.
Alexander believes CEAA will go forward under Section 5.
“That’s the trigger, I think, that is going to trigger the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.” Alexander said.
In an April 24 statement, Baucus said he and Rice are pushing for a review under Section 47 of CEAA, which sets forth a broad review of the mine’s impacts. But in more recent statements, both Baucus and the State Department are now calling for a comprehensive assessment, without specifying a preference for either section.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said Section 5 could allow for a comprehensive review of the entire mine proposal’s trans-boundary impacts.
“The United States has advised the Canadian government that a limited federal assessment would not be in keeping with our long history of cooperation on environmental issues on the border,” said Eric Watnik, a State Department spokesman.
Bates said his company will continue to move forward in the permitting process, abiding by whatever guidelines are set forth by government.
“We’re doing things, as far as I’m aware, to the best of our ability,” Bates said.
Even if the Cline mine proposal is defeated, Miske said, it’s likely that others will attempt to develop the massive coalfields that exist in the Canadian watershed of the North Fork.
“Even if Cline goes away tomorrow, the issue is not resolved,” Miske added. “Pandora’s Box has been opened.”
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