Mining out the middleman

In Montana, locals and industry bypass agencies and forge a new road

  • Stillwater Mine in Montana

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Stillwater bores for valuable palladium

    photo courtesy Stillwater Mining Co.
  • Paul Hawks on his family's ranch near Melville, Montana

    John Gayusky photo
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

MELVILLE, Mont. - From the pasture where he is ear-tagging newborn Black Angus calves, Montana native Paul Hawks can see most of the blocky northern flank of the Beartooth Mountains stretching out in front of him. His view takes in a bucolic, sparsely populated landscape that is being rapidly transformed by the operations of the Stillwater Mining Company.

From two sides of a rugged ridge south of Hawks' ranch, the mining company bores into the world's largest known reserve of palladium, the essential ingredient in catalytic converters. Converters have become standard on most cars since air-quality laws began to toughen in the early 1990s, and so the mines are thriving. As the price for palladium has grown 300 percent in the past decade, Stillwater's workforce has swelled to more than 1,000 workers.

The mine is located at the headwaters of the Boulder and Stillwater rivers, and for the past 12 years Hawks has struggled to make the mining company keep the water clean. In the face of what he considers marginal state environmental regulations, that hasn't been easy. But these days, Hawks and Stillwater officials are seeing eye-to-eye. Recently, the company and locals sidestepped agency middlemen to create consensus independently.

On May 8, the Stillwater Mining Co. and local citizens' groups Hawks represents signed a legally binding "good neighbor" agreement that requires the company to go above and beyond state and federal requirements for environmental monitoring and protection, and to address community concerns about mine-related population growth and development.

In the state where mining created America's largest Superfund site and more than once has left the public with expensive cleanups, some hope this independent and innovative compromise sets a precedent for mining companies in Montana and across the West.

Sidestepping the agencies

The agreement didn't happen overnight. It came after many years during which both parties tried to work within a government regulatory framework that the mining company found too strict and its critics found too weak.

Since 1978, affiliates of the Northern Plains Resource Council, an environmental coalition, have pressed mine owners to operate in the greenest, lowest-impact manner possible. Over the years, they studied and commented on five different environmental impact statements, as the mine expanded on private and U.S. Forest Service lands. The Northern Plains Resource Council also took the state of Montana to court in 1993 for issuing the mine a waiver to water-degradation laws, and they had another lawsuit pending this spring on a state EIS.

The result was frustration for both the mine and its neighbors. The company saw potential investors scared away by litigation and regulatory hassles. The citizens' groups saw their concerns largely papered over by regulatory agencies as their scarce resources went down the drain; over the last six years alone, the groups paid some $60,000 in legal fees.

So Hawks and his fellow activists decided to try something new.

"I've been dealing in the public process in Montana for at least the last 25 years, and what we've seen in the late '80s and '90s is a weakening of environmental laws, bad regulation on the part of the state, to the point where it wasn't worthwhile participating," says Hawks. "We thought, let's go directly to the mine and ask for more stringent rules."

They studied the handful of "good neighbor agreements' that other organizations had negotiated with refineries in California and Texas, wrote a mining-specific one of their own and presented it to Stillwater in 1999. After more than a year of negotiations, the company signed what both the mining industry and its critics are hailing as a "surprising" and precedent-setting agreement.

Citizen-group consultants can now inspect the mines, and take wastewater, stream, air and soil samples from company sites, as well as interview company employees.

The agreement also sets up two committees to review changing practices and technologies for mine oversight and waste reduction. Both committees have equal numbers of Northern Plains Resource Council members and company representatives. In the event of a deadlock, their disputes go to binding arbitration. If the arbiter agrees with the citizens' groups, Stillwater Mining has to implement their recommendation, regardless of cost, up to a limit of $1 million.

In order to lessen the impacts on the rural community, the mining company is working on a traffic-reduction plan and has placed conservation easements on thousands of acres of land. These easements both prohibit subdivision and additional industrial development, and confine disposal of waste rock and mill tailings to designated areas.

In exchange for the mining company's concessions, the groups dropped their pending lawsuit, and gave up the right to challenge the current renewal of the mine's discharge permit.

Cooperation takes compromise

"We felt as we embarked into a new century, perhaps it was time to break the cycle of endless litigation that surrounds mines whenever they change their permits or alter their operations," says Chris Allen, vice president at Stillwater. But involving locals so directly in the mining company was challenging, he admits.

"What was tough conceptually for the company to work through was the notion that any organization that did not have a fiduciary responsibility to the owners of the company should be essentially dictating policy to our board of directors," says Allen.

Hawks agrees that it's a big concession, and he says this compromise is hard for his side as well.

"The main thing we're giving up is our right to challenge things, their permits and so on," says Hawks, who adds that the agreement is no quick fix or panacea. "We're tied to this mine forever. Someone from our group has to participate on these committees for as long as the thing lasts. It's not like the mine goes away and the community goes back to normal and you can have your life back."

While both the citizens' groups and the mining company are getting praise for the innovative agreement, they have also heard skepticism.

"The level of trust between the mining industry and the environmental community is very, very low, and some mining operations have expressed concerns," says Allen. "It's lonely on the edge."

"I think there's going to be a lot of kind of look-see, let's wait and see how this unfolds," says Laura Skare of the Northwest Mining Association, an industry trade group.

The environmental community is also skeptical.

"(We) will hand kudos over to Stillwater Mining Company when it actually runs a sustainable, environmentally sound and community supportive mine," says Aimee Boulanger of the Mineral Policy Center, one of the industry's staunchest critics. But she adds that in the face of "woefully inadequate" existing regulations on the industry, the agreement is exciting.

Says Boulanger, "I hope we're gazing off at a new paradigm here."

Until very recently, Eric Whitney was a reporter and public radio producer in Billings, Montana. He now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Stillwater Mining Company, 406/322-8700, www.stillwatermining.com;
  • Northern Plains Resource Council, Mike Reisner, 406/248-1154.
  • A summary of the good neighbor agreement is available on the NPRC Web site: nprcmt.org, or can be obtained by calling NPRC.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Eric Whitney