Coal mining in the Flathead Valley

by Sarah Katharine Cox

Fifty kilometres south of Fernie British Columbia, in the Flathead River Valley, is a mountain ridge that has no name. A fall photograph shows a sprinkling of snow on wavy peaks, slopes covered in Alpine Fir and yel­low Larch, and a lush valley bottom below.

What you can’t see from the scenery shot is that this area boasts more carnivore species than any­where else in North America, such as marten, grizzly, gray wolf, lynx and fisher. It also happens to be very rich in coal.  

The price of coal has climbed in recent years, sending companies like Sudbury’s Cline Mining Corporation scurrying to profit from promising markets in China and other parts of Asia. Somewhere between a uranium project in Madagascar and gold drill­ing in Wawa, Ontario, Cline geolo­gists extracted core coal samples from this forested Rocky Mountain ridge and discovered a black bonanza. 

Cline’s proposed “Lodgepole” coal mine would extract up to 40 mil­lion tonnes of coal from this ridge, razing the mountain and dumping slag and pollutants into Foisey Creek, a fish-bearing headwaters stream of the Flathead River. Six coal trucks per hour, seven days a week, will haul the coal along a steep gravel road and over a 7,000-foot ridge to a railway siding. 

Coal has always been a dirty business, and “mountain top removal” coal mining is the darkest and bleakest of coal extraction methods. It is most notorious for the severely disfigured landscapes of the Appalachian Moun­tains in West Virginia and Kentucky. Another name for mountain top re­moval coal mining is strip mining, as layers of rock and subsoil are blasted away to expose lucrative coal seams. It could also be called strip mining because the landscape is stripped of all vegetation, wildlife and beauty, so that it looks as though it has been hit first by napalm and then smacked by a meteorite.  

The Flathead, compared to Afri­ca’s Serengeti for its richness of plant species, is also targeted for coalbed methane drilling and precious metals and phosphate mining. Since the BC Liberal government introduced online claim staking in 2005, allowing free miners to acquire mineral rights with a quick click of the mouse, the number of mining claims in the Flathead has risen.  

Decades of Threats

For decades, conservation groups have fought off Flathead energy and mining threats one by one. Last De­cember, following public pressure, the BC government excluded the Flathead from a controversial coalbed methane tenure it granted BP Canada, on the grounds that the Flathead is “environ­mentally sensitive.” In the absence of permanent protection, however, the Flathead River Valley remains wide open to future coalbed methane drill­ing, not to mention any number of coal mines. A case in point is the Cab­in Creek open pit coal mine planned two decades ago, not far from Cline’s proposed Lodgepole site. The Cabin Creek mine was rejected in 1988 after  the International Joint Com­mission concluded that pollu­tion caused by the mine would constitute a breach of treaty obligations between Canada and the US. Twenty years lat­er, groups on both sides of the border are battling the eerily similar Cline mine proposal, one that would be just as much of an environmental blight.  

There is a much better solution – permanent protec­tion in the form of a Flathead National Park. Sierra Club BC and other conservation groups are campaigning for the lower one-third of the Flathead Val­ley to become a National Park, and for a Wildlife Manage­ment Area to be established in the rest of the valley. The fed­eral government has included the Flathead in its National Parks Action Plan, and the lo­cal First Nation, the Ktunaxa, has written to the BC government in support of a national parks feasibility study. Approval from the BC govern­ment is needed before any protection measures can commence.  

A topographic map shows the Flathead River Valley as a green rib­bon of undisturbed wildlife habitat. The valley is a vital part of the Yel­lowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, which seeks to protect the wildlife, native plants, wilderness and natural processes of the mountainous region from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon Territory. Cana­dian Geographic magazine describes the Flathead as a “nursery, incubating wildlife that disperses and repopulates neighbouring habitats.” Never settled, the low elevation valley supports a huge array of wildlife: 16 carnivore species and six ungulate (hooved) spe­cies in all. Wildlife flourish because animals have undisturbed access to both the valley bottom and mountain tops. Grizzlies emerging from a long, lean winter can prey on deer or elk on the valley floor, and then migrate upwards as snow melts in search of hedysarum and glacier lily bulbs, fat grubs hiding under stones and, in summer, juicy buffalo berries and huckleberries.  

Only a few hundred years ago, grizzlies roamed from Mexico to Manitoba. Today, the southern tip of the grizzly bear’s remaining habitat closes in on the Flathead River Valley.  

Pure Water

The meandering transbound­ary Flathead has water so pure that scientists like Dr. Rick Hauer, from the Flathead Lake Biological Station in Montana, use it as a benchmark for measuring water quality in rivers around the world. The Flathead flows south across the border and into Gla­cier National Park, one of the most highly-protected areas in the entire United States, most fa­mous these days for its melting namesakes. 

If Cline’s proposal is ap­proved, overburden will be dumped into Foisey Creek, a headwaters stream of the Flat­head just below the nameless ridge only 35 kilometres from the US border. The US De­partment of the Interior says heavy metals and other pol­lutants from the Cline Mine could reach the US portion of the Flathead River within 24 hours. Two species of fish, the bull trout and the westslope cutthroat trout, are at risk. 

The ecosystem is known as the Crown of the Continent because water from this re­gion flows to all three oceans surrounding North America. Alberta and Montana have each protected their part of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, es­tablished in 1932. That park has been declared a UNESCO Biosphere Re­serve and World Heritage site due to its priceless environmental values. It is time for the BC government to fill in the park’s missing piece, by agree­ing to permanent protection for the Flathead River Valley.  

***

Sarah Katharine Cox works for Sierra Club BC. More information is available at www.sierraclub.bc.ca.

Please write to Premier Camp­bell (Box 9041, Station Prov Govt, Victoria, BC, V8W 9E1) and let him know you want a National Park in the lower one-third of the Flat­head River Valley and a Wildlife Management Area in the rest of the valley and adjoining habitat.

[From WS June/July 2009]

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital