Environmental experts continue to warn against the creation of a huge coal mine just north of the border.
The Cline Mining Corp. is proposing to create a coal mine in the North Fork of the Flathead. The company plans to mine coal from the open pit project for 20 years as well as upgrade a road system into the drainage.
Representatives from several state agencies spoke on the mine at a meeting Monday hosted by the Flathead Basin Commission in Kalispell.
“(Canada) has everything to gain. We have everything to lose if this mine goes through,” said Rich Moy, chairman of the commission.
The mine has raised concerns over possible contamination of the Flathead River. The mine is planned for the Foisey Creek drainage, which is a tributary of the North Fork of the Flathead.
The river is protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. But the river is not afforded the same protection north of the border.
Ric Hauer, with the Flathead Lake Biological Station, called the mine a “very real and present danger.”
Hauer noted that contaminants from the mine could reach the river within 24 hours and could be in Flathead Lake within 72 hours.
Pollutants could impact drinking water, he said, as well as agriculture and fisheries.
About 10 miles from Cline's proposed site, another coal mine is currently operating. This mine sits above Michel Creek, which flows into the Koocanusa Reservoir.
Hauer said water samples taken from the creek show sulfite levels 18 times higher, nitrates 650 times higher and selenium levels 57 times higher than normal.
If Cline's proposal goes through, there is the potential for runoff into the North Fork of the Flathead River and ultimately Flathead Lake. Coal mining creates the possibility for toxic heavy metals or other pollutants, which could in-turn harm the North Fork's fish.
Bull trout and westslope cutthroat are in the proposed area of the mine.
Bull trout migrate from Flathead Lake to British Columbia, noted Mark Deleray, a fisheries biologist with the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
“There are a number of things that could affect the water and the fish,” he said. “Including excavation, settling ponds, roads, heavy metals (contamination) - these could result in a loss of habitat and reduce reproduction.”
Chris Servheen, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the mine could cause a fragmentation of not only grizzly bears, but other carnivores in the area including lynx and wolverines.
His fear is that the Cline Mine alone would result in a truck every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week traveling to Canada's Highway 3.
“Populations effected by the mine could be cut off from Canadian populations,” he said. “We'd have island populations which are harder to maintain.”
Many experts are worried that the development of one mine could lead to further development of an area rich in coal.
“This would be a disaster for the terrestrial and aquatic species,” said Servheen.
Groups are calling for an intervention of the International Joint Commission. The group, which is made up of scientists that examine boundary water issues. Recourse could come from the Boundary Waters Treaty, which says Canada can't pollute waters into the U.S. and the U.S. can't pollute Canadian waters.
The IJC prevented a similar proposal for the area in 1988.
Experts also agree that baseline study of the area is needed.
Brace Hayden with Glacier National Park said major concerns for the area include the limited extent of current study, the need for an assessment of the cumulative impacts and the need for more comprehensive pre-mine data collection.
He noted that the U.S. area has been heavily studied, but the Canadian has not.
“The transboundary Flathead is incredibly rich from a biological standpoint,” he said.
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