Stillwater Mine and Conservationists Mark 10th Anniversary
Last month marked the 10th anniversary of the Stillwater Good Neighbor Agreement, a pact between conservationists and a large mine operation that keeps disputes out of the courts while protecting two important Montana watersheds. On that date in 2000, a south-central Montana hard-rock mining company and three local environmental groups signed a historic, legally binding agreement to iron out differences transparently while applying rigorous environmental practices to the mine’s operations.
The Good Neighbor Agreement came as a huge surprise to many who follow mining issues in the West. Instead of fighting it out in court or agency hearings, the Northern Plains Resource Council and two of its affiliate groups—Cottonwood Resource Council and Stillwater Protective Association—collaborate with the Stillwater Mining Company in a process developed through a year-long negotiation in 1999 and 2000. The landmark contract— dubbed the Good Neighbor Agreement – set out to protect the watersheds of the Boulder and Stillwater rivers while allowing the expansion of North America’s only platinum/palladium mining operation.
The past decade wasn’t easy for the Agreement, and included dramatic price drops for the metals being mined, as well as the buyout of Stillwater Mining by a Russian firm, and the economic recession that began in 2008 and cost Stillwater its largest customer, General Motors. But the Agreement remains a working example of how ranchers, rural communities, and heavy industry can address local environmental and socioeconomic problems without going to court.
Jerry Iverson, a Big Timber ranch manager and member of Cottonwood Resource Council, negotia-ted for the local conservationists in 1999 and 2000 and still sits on the Agreement’s oversight committee. Iverson said the mines have brought good jobs and a strong tax base to Sweet Grass County, and the Agreement has kept the environmental impact to a minimum. "It’s really been deeply satisfying," he said.
Celebrations are to take place in Big Timber and Absarokee this summer. At the time the Agreement was signed, The New York Times editorialized: “The result makes genuine environmental protection consistent with continued productivity….this may become a model for similar agreements elsewhere.”
Other communities have indeed studied what has made the Agreement work, and a 2008 agreement negotiated in Washington State was specifically modeled after the Good Neighbor Agreement.
The Stillwater Mining Company produces platinum and palladium from two underground sites in the Beartooth Mountains, one of three places in the world where the strategic metals are mined. Palladium is mainly used in automobile catalytic converters.
The Agreement was updated in 2005. Members of all groups, along with an independent environmental consultant, meet quarterly to address mine operations and any problems that arise.
The Agreement ensures that mining operations work to prevent pollution; that the water quality of the Stillwater and Boulder rivers is regularly monitored; provides for regular citizen oversight meetings with company representatives to address and prevent problems; increases transparency of mine operations and plans; improves traffic safety through the busing of miners to the mine sites; and prevents the development of “man-camps” by limiting mine-sponsored housing to established communities;. The Agreement has also placed conservation easements on 4,000 acres of land, and serves as a vehicle for citizen input on reclamation, tailings siting, wildlife, and other issues.
In an industry known for its friction with conservation groups, the Good Neighbor Agreement has demonstrated that it is possible for a large mine to operate while also protecting natural resources and the quality of life in neighboring communities. The Billings Gazette described the Agreement as “a testament to how people can find common ground.”