Staking A Claim 

Firm unveils plans for vermiculite mine in the Bitterroot

Fourteen years after a Utah mining company announced plans to reopen an unused vermiculite mine in the Sapphire Mountains east of Hamilton, the company, Stansbury Holding Corporation, has resurfaced and announced mining plans again. But a fish and a tiny yellow flower may change those plans.

This time, an addendum to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) done in the early 1990s will no doubt take a harder look at cutthroat trout habitat downstream from the mine. In addition, a member of the mustard family, arabis fecundus rollins, is known to grow in only two spots in the United States—one about 100 yards from the mine haul road and the other about six miles away. That flower rests alongside what a Stansbury press release calls the “the largest known undeveloped resource of vermiculite in North America.”

Stansbury is a company that has resurrected itself, Phoenix-like, many times in the past decade and a half. In 1986, the firm announced it had purchased land and almost 100 mining claims—some of which are on U.S. Forest Service land—on Skalkaho Mountain. Initial announcements were that the company planned to start mining in 1987. Plans were to mine 400,000 tons of ore per year to get an estimated 25,000 tons of product. Vermiculite is a mineral that expands to 20 times its original size when subjected to extreme heat. It is light and temperature resistant and is used in insulation, potting soil and fertilizer.

From the beginning, environmentalists from around western Montana questioned the safety of the proposed Stansbury mining operation with its potential for releasing asbestiform fibers into the air. At one of the first public meetings in Hamilton, a Stansbury mining engineer, Mark Welch, announced the Hamilton vermiculite assay testing appeared to be “totally asbestos-free.” Then-president Victor Borchards stated flatly, “The deposit will be mined. I don’t want to be obnoxious or hard-nosed about it, but these are the bare facts.”

The next day, Borchards qualified the statements made the previous night. He claimed the statements at the first meeting had been “misinterpreted” by the media and admitted the Hamilton vermiculite deposit does contain an asbestos-containing mineral called actinolite. However, he insisted it was in a crystalline, not fibrous, form and therefore would not pose a health problem.

Stansbury applied to the state and was granted the right to issue—and sell—$16 million in industrial revenue bonds, of which $6 million were tax-free. The company optioned property on Fairgrounds Road near Hamilton for an exfoliation plant site and won permission from the Hamilton City Council to have the land annexed into the city and supplied with city services.

Stansbury went through half a dozen presidents during the time that it was seeking to sell the bonds and offering public sales of stock. It announced mergers with a number of other holding companies, some of which happened and some of which did not. The firm had a perpetual cash flow problem.

Finally, in 1995, Stansbury went through bankruptcy, and the company and five former officers were indicted in a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the Securities Exchange Act.

Stansbury’s stock is still openly traded but it has steadily lost value over the years. At one point in 1988, it traded for $1.25 per share, with 10,886,000 shares on the market. It dropped to a low of 17 cents a share in July 1997 and hit a recent high of 55 cents a share in February 1999. It traded at 30 cents a share this week with 14,846,000 shares on the market.

Today, Stansbury is moving its headquarters to Denver from Philadelphia. The company recently reactivated a vermiculite mine near Dillon, Mont., shipping a 20-ton load of ore to an exfoliation plant in California last week. And on its website (, Stansbury states the “Hamilton project is already generally permitted by a full Environmental Impact Statement and is planned to be brought into limited seasonal production next year.”

Aldine J. Coffman has been the president of the company since May 1999. He said the company will do assessment work in the 20-acre pit mine in the spring and may consider expanding the site if tests look commercially viable. Stansbury’s claims cover more than 1,700 acres.

With recent reports of massive health problems being tied to the W.R. Grace vermiculite operation in Libby, the prospect of a similar mine in the Bitterroot Valley will be met with as much concern and opposition as it was 14 years ago. In the original EIS, Stansbury passed the health risk assessment for mining at that time. That portion of the document and the potential impact on endangered species in the area would have to be restudied and updated before any significant work could occur on the site.

A well-organized Concerned Citizens Coalition tracked Stansbury’s earlier efforts, and many of its members still live in the Bitterroot. The EIS was never formally challenged in a court of law because the company was inactive for so many years. But all that may change in the coming months.

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