Canadians hopeful for talks on Cline mine

Canadians hopeful for talks on Cline mine

Even as Gov. Brian Schweitzer looks to federal intervention in a transboundary dispute with British Columbia, his Canadian counterparts are seeking to resolve the issues locally.

“British Columbia recognizes and indeed shares many of Montana’s concerns,†Canadian officials wrote to state lawmakers last week. “B.C. has maintained the position that issues are best resolved through an ongoing bilateral dialogue between B.C. and Montana.â€

That’s in sharp contrast to statements made earlier in the week by Schweitzer, who said during a meeting in Kalispell that collaborative efforts between the state and province seemed not to be working, and federal intervention would be needed.

“I was hoping we could work this out with British Columbia directly,†Schweitzer said Monday. “I haven’t seen anything that looks like a collaborative agreement.â€

Talks between the state and province have not succeeded as the governor had hoped, and “I think this is now going to be in the lap of the State Department.â€

That’s where the issue landed two decades ago, when a coal mine proposal north of Glacier National Park first put Montana and British Columbia at odds. Downstream interests in Montana worried about water contamination in the Flathead Basin, among other things.

Once pushed to the federal level, the U.S. State Department and its Canadian counterpart agreed to enlist the help of an international commission charged with resolving transboundary water disputes.

In 1988, that commission advised the mining plan be nixed.

Now comes the plan advanced by Cline Mining Corp., which would dig 40 million tons of coal from the headwaters of the Flathead, removing an entire mountain in the process. Again, downstream interests have raised the alarm, and have been joined by leading scientists from several state and federal agencies.

Currently, Canadian officials are asking the public for input on a plan that will define the scope of environmental analysis required before the mine can be permitted. Scientists from south of the border have deemed the plan inadequate, and Schweitzer has been joined by Montana’s top Democrat – U.S. Sen. Max Baucus – in calling for federal intervention.

But in a Jan. 17 letter to state lawmakers, John van Dongen reiterated British Columbia’s commitment to further negotiations at the local level.

As British Columbia’s minister of state for intergovernmental relations, van Dongen is a top-level link between the state and the province. He noted in his letter that active mining in the Flathead remains years away, and emphasized good-faith steps the province has taken in response to downstream concerns.

In 2004, when facing opposition to yet another coal mine plan, officials in British Columbia created a “coal land reserve†just north of Glacier Park, he said, taking lands there out of consideration for mining, at least temporarily.

In addition, van Dongen wrote, the province has proposed an exhaustive review of all existing scientific literature relative to the Canadian Flathead. That came in response to a Montana request for additional scientific study prior to mine development.

Provincial officials also have engaged in talks regarding future data collection, van Dongen wrote, also in response to Montana concerns.

And the invitation to include downstream stakeholders in the mine permitting process means “Montana representatives are participating at an unprecedented level†in the governmental review of Cline’s proposal.

And although Montana participants have said their input has been politely ignored, van Dongen emphasized that “B.C. has invited delegations from Montana to consult with the province every step of the way.â€

Copies of the latest proposal have even been provided to Montana libraries in Missoula, Kalispell, Whitefish and Polson, he said.

In addition, van Dongen wrote, top-level officials from provincial government are actively negotiating to create an “action plan†that would help the two sides implement a broad international environmental cooperation agreement drafted back in 2003.

Despite the concerns of scientists who say environmental baseline data is insufficient for decision making, van Dongen wrote that “B.C. has extensive environmental information and baseline data that informs communities, industry and government of environmental values in the area of concern, and has reiterated over time its commitment to collaborating with Montana so that Montana can gain knowledge of B.C.’s regulatory practices and environmental assessment processes.â€

Approval of the mine, he wrote, “would only be granted on the condition that the Lodgepole Coal Mine project meets B.C.’s stringent environmental standards.â€

But Baucus and others have raised questions about just how stringent those standards are, and whether provincial steps taken thus far will prove sufficient to avoid federal intervention remains unknown.

Schweitzer said he appreciates all that’s been done to date, and repeated that he is committed to continuing talks at the state-province level.

At the same time, however, the governor said he’s unconvinced that Montana’s input has had any real effect on the current mining proposal.

The state, he said, will continue its involvement, including talks between the governor’s office and that of provincial Premier Gordon Campbell. But Montana also must consider other avenues, he said, including federal involvement.

It is not a path he would normally choose, Schweitzer said, but “I think we may be at the point where we have to do what I normally don’t like to do.â€

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at (406) 862-0324 or at

Meeting of the mines

A Missoula meeting is set to discuss the scope of an environmental assessment that will be needed prior to consideration of coal mine development north of Glacier National Park. All comments should be focused narrowly on that assessment plan, which can be viewed at

Presenters will accept public comment from 7 to 10 p.m. Wednesday at Missoula’s Doubletree Hotel.


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