Lodgepole Creek as it runs downstream near the proposed site of a massive coal mine in Canada, just north of the Montana border.
The three branches of the Flathead River thread like brilliant ribbons through Montana’s rugged northwestern mountains as they make their way to Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in western America. The Flathead system constitutes some of Montana’s purest water, with approximately 80 percent of its total originating from untouched, federally protected lands. The main stem of the river stretches from above Columbia Falls to the northern shore of the lake. Two of the river’s branches, the South Fork and the Middle Fork, begin in the rugged backcountry of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
The third and most pristine offshoot, the North Fork, starts as a trickle some 40 miles north of the Montana border, in what today remains an unpopulated and remote drainage, a part of the same spectacular mountain range that extends to Waterton Lake and Glacier National Parks. It’s a corner of the world that has everything going for it—a blessing that’s also a curse. Grizzly bears and bull trout call it home. Nature lovers, tourists, environmentalists, and wilderness enthusiasts call it paradise. And energy companies love it, too.
Their reasoning is elemental: The North Fork flows atop some of the richest coal deposits yet unearthed in British Columbia. Accompanying all the coal, moreover, are vast supplies of coal-bed methane gas, including trillions of cubic feet of the fossil fuel buried deep beneath the mountains.
With so much treasure in the ground, it’s not surprising that the Canadian government has been courting and approving energy development. Five open-pit coal mines are already operating at the head of the Elk River valley, near the towns of Elkford and Sparwood. The wastewater from those mines drains into the Elk River Valley, the Koocanusa Reservoir and, from there, into Montana’s Kootenai River.
To date, no mines have been allowed to operate in the basin of the Canadian Flathead headwaters. Doing so, environmentalists on both sides of the border agree, would threaten the purity of the North Fork and the entire Flathead River, including Flathead Lake and beyond. Picture poisoned water flowing around Glacier National Park. Picture dead fish, silt-sluggish streams, and vanishing animals whose migration routes have been obliterated, activists say.
Persistent opposition to nightmare scenarios like these brought a major victory to Montanans last week. On February 21, British Petroleum announced that it was greatly reducing the footprint of its proposed Mist Mountain Coalbed Gas Project, tabling its plans to drill in the Canadian Flathead, just 25 miles from Glacier National Park.
As originally proposed, the Mist Mountain project would have resulted in hundreds of mines, miles of roads and pipes, and millions of gallons of wastewater that could potentially contaminate the North Fork.
“We all worked very hard” to stop the Flathead portion of the project, said Sen. Max Baucus, who announced the news of BP’s pullout at a Kalispell town hall meeting, with Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Jon Tester in tow. All present announced their gratitude to British Columbia and BP for scotching the project—and reminded the crowd that the battle is not over. “You can be proud,” as Tester told the crowd. “But we still have more work to do.”
Indeed, the work never seems to stop. BP is still pursuing coal-bed methane development further north in the scenic Elk River Valley. Even more troubling, critics say, is a proposed coal mine, still very much on the table, that would effectively industrialize the pristine North Fork headwaters in exchange for billions of dollars in royalties. The Ontario-based Cline Mining Corporation hopes to build a mountaintop removal mine—one of the most destructive of its kind—on a ridge next to crucial tributaries of the Canadian North Fork, about 25 miles from Montana’s border. Construction of Cline’s Lodgepole mine could be underway in three to five years, or as soon as it wins approval from the Canadian government.
Conservationists, scientists, Montana legislators, and citizens on both sides of the border are up in arms about the Lodgepole, which would be situated on a vast reserve that holds an estimated 40 million tons of coal. An operation of that magnitude could eventually penetrate the vast groundwater sources that have been sealed within the Lodgepole ridge for millions of years, critics say. The result could be contamination on par with the Berkeley Pit, a part of America’s largest and most costly Superfund site, which stretches for more than 100 miles from the headwaters of the Clark Fork River in Butte to the Milltown dam in Missoula.
“So little is known for sure about the geology and hydrology underlying the southern Canadian Rockies and its effect on the river and tributaries—we are tempting fate to allow a mine the size of Lodgepole to just blossom up in the middle of it all,” says Erin Sexton, a leading researcher for the Flathead Lake Biological Station who is performing water analyses on the headwaters near the proposed mine.
Cline officials say the project would have no negative environmental impacts. For their part, BP officials say they won’t proceed with coal-bed methane mining anywhere in British Columbia if doing so would cause harm. Both companies, meanwhile, say their operations would bring hundreds of jobs and huge economic benefits. But beyond those promises—and beyond the tangle of legal, environmental, and border issues they raise—a simple question remains unanswered. Will the Flathead ever be saved?
The North Fork of the Flathead River, like the child of warring parents, obeys different sets of rules depending on where it lives. In British Columbia’s Waterton Lakes National Park it enjoys protected status. In the parts of Canada outside the park, however, the river is unprotected, to the point where the government considers it prime territory for energy development.
In the United States, the story changes again. After building girth from dozens of Canadian tributaries like Foisey, Crabb, Cabin and McLatchie Creeks, the North Fork spills across the Montana border to form the western boundary of Glacier National Park, a prized jewel in the American park system. The instant it crosses into the states, the river becomes royalty—one of the nation’s most pristine and protected waterways.
“No other river in America can boast the vast measure of federal protection as the Upper North Fork,” says Will Hammerquist, Glacier program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
The Upper North Fork is designated as a scenic river under the federal Wild and Scenic River Act. The U.S. Clean Water Act classifies it as A-1; under Montana law it’s managed as an “outstanding resource waterway.” The river’s entire upper drainage is considered by wildlife experts to be a final stronghold for threatened species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, including the grizzly bear, wolf, lynx, and bull trout. And ecologists deem the area the most fully intact biosphere left on the planet, which is why it’s been designated a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
The labels might not sound like much on paper, says water researcher Sexton, but what they add up to is a wilderness that mining would destroy forever. In order to reach the coal in the Lodgepole mine, for example, crews plan to blast off the entire mountaintop, then go after it for the next 15 to 20 years with diesel powered shovels and 80-ton haul trucks weaving day and night through the gigantic open pit. For each ton of coal extracted, the operation would produce more than 80 tons of waste rock, or “overburden,” which would be piled in enormous dumps that permanently alter the landscape.
“We don’t know, and perhaps never will, how underground water moves through bedrock strata, or just where it will percolate back to the surface through a fissure or crack,” Sexton says on a recent snowy day on a walk along the banks of the Flathead River. It’s the type of scene that Sexton’s become attached to over her many years of work at the biological station and, before that, on her masters’ thesis. Her topic: the potential effects of mining on the North Fork headwaters.
“Any time land is disturbed, especially in steep mountainous geographies, you can expect enormous water pollution problems in the form of sediment, nutrient loading, heavy metals and, in the case of open pit mining, toxic pollutants like selenium,” Sexton says.
Mountaintop removal mining in the United States has devastated the mountains of West Virginia. The process involves underground explosives that rip through millions of tons of rock and dirt, sending toxic sediment into miles of nearby waterways. Montana mine reclamation standards won’t allow for it.
Because the Canadian Rockies are known for heavy annual rain and snowfall, the Lodgepole mine would also face huge problems with runoff. Surface water could potentially carry poisons from the open pit, roads, tailing piles or waste dumps, posing a devastating threat to surrounding streams.
“There are volumes of studies and data addressing the enormous impact open pit mining has on surrounding landscapes and water quality,” Sexton says. “I can’t point to one example where that kind of operation has not negatively impacted water quality.”
Water research will be one of many tools Montana hopes to use to convince British Columbia to drop the Lodgepole project. Montana has also asked the Canadian government to step in and perform a high level federal environmental review of the mine, in addition to the one performed by British Columbia; Canada agreed to the request last spring.
In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of American tax dollars are being used to conduct baseline water quality studies and fishery and aquatic studies that look at potential impacts to threatened species like the bull and cutthroat trout, which migrate across the Canada line to spawn.
In one study, researchers from the Flathead Lake Biological Station looked at water quality on a creek just north of the proposed Lodgepole site, in British Columbia’s Crowsnest coalfields. Water samples from Michel Creek contained levels of nitrates that were 650 times higher than the background levels on the Flathead River, about ten miles south. Particularly alarming was the elevated level of selenium, a potent pollutant that in high concentrations kills trout and other aquatic life, and causes nerve damage and health problems in humans. “The selenium concentration found in the Michel Creek was 57 times higher than the baseline on the Flathead River,” Sexton says.
Environmental experts believe the protection of the downstream Flathead and the biosphere through which it flows depends on the reliability of Cline Mining’s wastewater systems, not just during the years of operation but into perpetuity. Experts say Cline should be able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of both the United States and Canadian governments that it can mitigate any environmental damage that might occur—a promise that would be impossible to keep, they add.
Kenneth Bates, the president of Cline Mining Corporation, is one person who disagrees. Speaking by cell phone from London, Bates says the Lodgepole mine “is a wonderful project. It harms no one and benefits everyone. It is an environmentally sound project, it is clean, and presents no threat to the Canadian Flathead. Any environmental impacts,” Bates adds, “will flow to the Elk River side of the mountains,” or into the Koocanusa reservoir —“but not to the Flathead.”
(Bates’ description of where the water would flow contradicts existing scientific data and reports, which say the mine would impact the Flathead, not the Elk River.)
“We have done about everything humanly possible to move the project forward and make it a go,” Bates continues. “We have tried earnestly to be completely transparent with folks about our plans. There’s plenty of information out there in the way of news stories and public meetings, and if people have questions we’d love to hear them.”
People do have questions. Environmentalists wonder why the Cline proposal presented to the British Columbia government in 2006 involved a wastewater handling system that includes diversion and collection ditches and settling ponds, with no mention of protective lining to keep toxic water from seeping into the ground.
Rich Moy, chief of the water management bureau for Montana’s Department of natural Resources and Conservation, puts it this way: “One of the most troublesome problems we see in Cline’s mining plan is the potential for wastewater from either the mine or the settling ponds to seep beneath the Rocky Mountains and make its way into surrounding tributaries, like Foisey, Crabb, McLatchie Creeks, or into the riverbed itself.”
Moy is an old hand at doing battle to protect the Upper Flathead. He’s been involved with similar fights for more than 30 years, or ever since mining in the region first became a topic of concern in the late 1970s. “Once damage occurs in a pristine environment like the Canadian Flathead, it’s impossible to mitigate or return to a state of natural function,” he says.
In recent years, anxiety over the water quality on the Canadian headwaters has been exacerbated by the BP coal-bed methane proposal, one that was actively recruited by the British Columbia government.
On a map, British Columbia’s coal beds appear to litter the mountains around Waterton and Glacier National Park, the so-called crown of the continent. The region is priceless for its beauty and value as a tourist attraction. An estimated two million people visit Glacier National Park every year, and thousands take float trips on the North Fork.
But the river’s value north of the border is similarly stunning. According to the Canadian government, BP’s original Mist Mountain project (including the Flathead portion that the company recently scrapped) would have generated more than $2 billion in provincial gas royalties and another $2 billion or so paid in corporate taxes, while creating hundreds of jobs. The original footprint of the operation would have been jaw-dropping, stretching southward from the head of the Elk River valley, near the towns of Elkford and Sparwood, and continuing north to a point 25 miles from the border of Glacier.
Officials from BP say they were prepared to walk away if environmental problems arose. Environmental groups—along with political muscle from Baucus, Tester, and Schweitzer—helped convince the oil giant that there were problems, indeed.
The BP turnaround was the result of “a real team effort” by legislators and environmental activists, Baucus told the jubilant crowd at the Flathead Valley Community College, where the senator announced the pullout news Feb. 21. The Kalispell meeting had initially been called to craft a battle plan against Canadian mining developments, but now a celebration seemed in order. At least for a while.
BP, Baucus cautioned the crowd, still intends to develop methane in the Elk River Valley. Schweitzer echoed the senator’s concern. “We’re not going to sell out the Kootenai,” he declared.
As talk turned to the mountaintop removal mine slated for the Canadian headwaters, the mood grew more somber. Moy warned that the Cline proposal is a huge threat to both the Flathead and Kootenai Rivers. “Once the infrastructure is put in place for the first mine,” he predicted, “we’ll see development throughout the upper Flathead basin.”
There’s no telling what type of battle would keep this geo-genie in its bottle. But, as Tester put it after the meeting, “This is probably headed for court.”
The law, at least in some aspects, could be in the conservationists favor. “In this dispute we have the angels on our side,” as legal expert Richard Paisley told the audience at a December 2007 meeting of the Flathead Coalition, a community action group established to protect the Flathead Basin. Serious violations of international law by British Columbia might be the Cline mine’s fatal flaw, says Paisley, who has taught environmental conflict resolution and international water law at the University of British Columbia for more than two decades and has served as an advisor on a number of international water commissions.
In his presentation before the coalition—and in a subsequent meeting in Helena the next day in with Schweitzer and his staff—Paisley said the British Columbia government is heading for a high-profile international legal battle it cannot possibly win.
He believes the Cline project violates a near-century old agreement called the International Boundary Water Treaty, enacted in 1909, and says the mine would also violate the rule of the International Joint Commission, a panel charged with resolving cross-border disputes between the United States and Canada.
“A lot is at stake,” says Hal Harper, chief policy advisor for Schweitzer, who says he hopes ongoing negotiations with Canada will resolve matters without resorting to legal options.
But Harper says Canadians do have a legal obligation to avoid using their territory for activities harmful to the United States. The Lodgepole mine and even the continuing portion of BP’s Mist Mountain methane project constitute the use of an international drainage in a manner that subjects Montana to the greatest share of the potential damage, he says. “This, in our opinion, runs contrary to international law.”
If international law is invoked, the imbroglio would likely end up in the hands of the powerful International Joint Commission. (Both nations would have to ask for the IJC’s involvement, a step that’s a long way off.)
But if the IJC eventually does deal with issue, it won’t be the first time. In the 1980s the panel played a major role in defeating the hot-button issue of its day, the proposed Cabin Creek mine near the Montana border. Then-freshman Senator Max Baucus helped spearhead the opposition.
The IJC, for its part, empanelled an international team of 50 scientists who studied the Flathead basin for three years—and said no to Cabin Creek. The team’s findings, issued in 1988, concluded that the Canadian headwaters of the North Fork were critical for migrating birds, mammals, and fish like the bull trout. The pristine territory and the wildlife it supports might never recover if damaged by industrial pollution, the panel declared, adding that no such mining project should be approved “unless or until” proponents could demonstrate that the potential trans-boundary impacts were acceptable to both governments. The team recommended that Montana and British Columbia give permanent protection to the Flathead headwaters by setting up an International Conservation Reserve, an idea first raised by Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden—and still sought by state leaders today.
“Max has been a champion for the Flathead for over a generation, and all five Montana governors—from Schwinden to Schweitzer—have been on the same page about this threat,” says Glacier program manager Will Hammerquist, from the National Parks Conservation Association. In 2003, Gov. Judy Martz signed an Environmental Cooperation Arrangement with British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell—a plan that offered a greater level of protection to the area—but British Columbia hasn’t expressed interest in going further, he says. “Unfortunately, BC has been unwilling to implement a substantive action plan ever since.”
The British Columbia government, for its part, says it is practicing sound environmental policy. According to Richard Neufeld, Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, the province’s energy plan offers a “made-in-BC solution to the common global challenge of ensuring a secure, reliable supply of affordable energy in an environmentally responsible way.”
But as the United States and Canada continue to face off, the fate of Montana’s magnificent rivers hangs precariously in the balance. The state, when all is said and done, might be fighting this war for as long as the world needs fuel.
“When it comes to protecting Montana natural wonders like the Flathead and Kootenai,” as Baucus has become accustomed to saying, “we’re never out of the woods.”
Freelance writer Gordon Sullivan’s forthcoming book, Saving Home Waters, will be published by W.W. Norton & Co. this winter.