Mining Trust 

How a new mine and a small town became good neighbors

It’s not every day that environmentalists can praise a mining company. Then again, it’s not every day that a mining company volunteers to adhere to strict water quality standards, perform biological monitoring, control suburban sprawl, promote ridesharing for its employees and preserve the rural character of neighboring communities.

But in a recent deal between the Denver-based Stillwater Mining Co. and activists from two communities in eastern Montana, mine owners have agreed to do just that—and put it in writing. A legally binding “Good Neighbor Agreement” to be signed in mid-January is the first of its kind in the nation and marks a radical shift in how local environmentalists are dealing with the impacts of an extractive industry on their communities.

“Usually the mining industry has had an antagonistic approach to the environmental groups, and vice versa,” says Bill Nettles, chief executive officer of Stillwater Mining, which operates a platinum and palladium mine about 28 miles southwest of Columbus. “I do believe this is a first, and obviously we’re spending some extra money to do this … because we believe it’s important for us to work together as opposed to being in court all the time.”

In fact, Stillwater Mining is no stranger to the courtroom. From 1993 to 1996, the company was tied up in lawsuits with the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) over its effort to open a new mine in East Boulder, about 30 miles south of Big Timber. That lawsuit was later dismissed when world metal prices dropped and Stillwater Mining abandoned the East Boulder project.

However, about a year and a half ago, with platinum and palladium prices rebounding to about double what they were two years earlier, Stillwater Mining was once again looking to expand the Stillwater Mine and pursuing state permits to open the East Boulder Mine.

This time, however, members of the Stillwater Protective Association and the Cottonwood Resource Council (two local chapters of the NPRC) chose a different tack: They approached the company with a list of community concerns to see if a less costly and time-consuming solution than litigation could be reached. In June, representatives from both sides sat down for the first of several negotiating sessions, and by Sept. 1, a tentative “handshake” agreement had been reached.

Since the legal nuts and bolts of the agreement are still being hammered out by attorneys, neither side was willing to reveal all its particulars. Nevertheless, they did disclose some of the agreement’s broader features.

Unlike gold and silver mining, the extraction of platinum and palladium (used, respectively, in making computer components and catalytic converters) does not involve the use of toxic chemicals. However, local residents were concerned that nitrates from explosives used in the mining process would be discharged into the East Boulder River, which is a drainage to the Boulder River, a mecca for fly fisherman, hunters and other outdoor recreationists accessing the nearby Gallatin National Forest. In response, Stillwater Mining agreed, according to Nettles, to “go beyond the permitting requirements” on some water quality issues, including doing “a lot of voluntary work” on the study of fisheries and nutrient levels. The company also agreed to research new technologies for reducing or even eliminating the need for above-ground tailings storage, another concern of residents.

“Our position has never been to stop [the mine] because that would be both unrealistic and also somewhat hypocritical,” says Tammy Tragakiss of the Cottonwood Resource Council, who helped negotiate the Good Neighbor Agreement. “It’s a platinum/palladium mine and we all benefit from that in the cars we drive and the computers we use.”

Residents were further concerned what impact the mine’s estimated 500 to 700 new employees would have on Big Timber and surrounding communities, including its schools, roads, sewers, and other services and infrastructure. They feared that the influx of so many new residents would breed new subdivisions throughout the valley.

In response, the company, which has significant land holdings in the area, agreed to write covenants preserving existing land use, precluding subdivision of some of its property and abstaining from further industrial development.

Initially, Stillwater Mining had plans to build a work camp outside of town, until residents asked that mine employees be housed in Big Timber instead. That decision later proved profitable for Stillwater Mining when they secured an existing hotel in town at a lower cost and refurbished it to meet their needs.

With its employees to be housed in town, the company addresses another bone of contention: the projected increase in car and truck traffic up an unpaved Forest Service road to the mine entrance. Stillwater has agreed to consolidate the number of truck deliveries to the mine, and will bus most of its employees to and from work.

But the impact of the Good Neighbor Agreement goes beyond water nutrient levels, fish populations and traffic counts. Among the people who negotiated this agreement are a retired school teacher, a rancher, an artist and a sheepshearer. With little more than an NPRC sponsored two-day crash course in negotiation skills, these communities managed to cut themselves their own deal.

“It gave us the confidence we needed to sit across from the CEO, president and vice president of this huge corporation and feel confident,” says Tragakiss, a caretaker on a small ranch 26 miles outside of Big Timber. “Like we were on equal footing and had a right to be there.”

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