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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Good Neighbors

Air Date: Week of

A coalition of citizens groups and the largest mine in Montana have signed the first ever "good neighbor agreement" in the mining industry. As Eric Whitney reports, it promises to set an important precedent for both the mining industry and environmentalists.


CURWOOD: Mining is one of the world's oldest and most basic industries. It also has one of the worst legacies of environmental disruption and pollution. Its long-lasting impacts on land and water quality have resulted in a backlash against mining in this country, even in Montana, a state quite literally built on mining. Voters there last year outlawed new methods of cyanide-based gold recovery in the name of environmental protection. But in one town citizens and the mining company have come together in a precedent-setting agreement that could change the way the industry does business. Eric Whitney of the High Plains News Service has the story.

WHITNEY: Most Americans are probably unfamiliar with the precious metal palladium, even though chances are good that they own some. It may be in an old dental filling, or as part of an electronic device like a cellular phone. And if they own a car --

(A car engine revs up)

WHITNEY: -- they own at least half an ounce of palladium in the catalytic converter. Palladium helps remove some of the most dangerous gases from engine exhaust. As air quality laws around the world have tightened, the price of palladium has skyrocketed. A big reason is because there are only two places on the planet where palladium is mined. One's in South Africa.

(Wheels moving on tracks)

WHITNEY: The other is here in Montana's Bare Tooth Mountains about 50 miles north of Yellowstone National Park.

(Wheels continue)

WHITNEY: The Stillwater Mining Company sits atop the largest known palladium ore deposit in the world. It's boring and blasting its way into a craggy mountain ridge from a pair of parallel river valleys. Sounds like these have rattled Montana's mountain ranges for more than 100 years, from before it was even a state. And to a great degree, the fact that Montana was settled at all is because of the riches pulled from the earth here. But lately, times have been tough for Montana's mining industry.

(Ambient voices)

BOOTH: You know how the government is. It's been working against this mining, and they've shut down a lot of stuff.

WHITNEY: Eighty-nine-year-old Cliff Booth is a retired rancher. He and friend Charlie Sloan are eating lunch together here at the senior center in Big Timber, downstream from one of the Stillwater Company's palladium mines. Both say times have changed for the industry in Montana.

BOOTH: You shut that big mine down up over there at Cook City, raise the devil of that one up here at Butte, look like they're going to shut them down.

SLOAN: Looks so.

BOOTH: Of course, the water, pollution of the water and stuff, has something to do with that, which is all right. God, a fellow hadn't ought to drink polluted water in Montana.

SLOAN: But a lot of mines spend a lot of money. Somebody said they cost a million dollars a day.

BOOTH: Oh, I wouldn't be surprised.

SLOAN: Yeah. That's a lot of money. (Laughs)

WHITNEY: Cliff and Charlie are representative of a lot of Montanans, torn between a desire to keep the Treasure State pristine, but aware that working mines can mean prosperity, too. Hourly wages paid in Montana are the lowest in the nation. And Stillwater Mining Company says it pays about twice the state's average annual income. With more than 900 employees, it's already close to being the state's largest employer, and is poised to expand and triple its output in the next three years.

(Crane calls)

WHITNEY: South of Big Timber, a pair of sandhill cranes dance in a creekside pasture owned by Paul Hawks. This family rancher is concerned about the mining company's growing industrialization of the area.

HAWKS: It's something that you can't ignore. I mean, it's going to change the community we live in and how we live in it. So, it's something we need to get a handle on.

(A cow moos)

WHITNEY: When he's not feeding, herding, or ear-tagging his family's cows, as he is today, Hawks chairs the Cottonwood Resource Council, a local citizen's group that formed 12 years ago in response to the nearby mining. He says that it never seemed practical to try and shut the mine down.

HAWKS: So, those of us who had concerns about that decided, well, if we're going to have a mine, then we want the best damn mine this community's ever seen. And we're going to make sure that they do it with the values of the local community in mind, and that when they're gone, that we still have a semblance of the community we had before.

WHITNEY: Over the years that meant following traditional routes, like working with state and federal regulatory agencies and taking them or the mining company to court when they felt they had to. But Arlene Boyd, who chairs a sister group of the council Hawks works with, says that strategy didn't seem effective.

BOYD: If you try to calculate what is the likely outcome of a lawsuit in the state of Montana on an environmental issue, I don't know anybody who feels terribly confident doing that. Also, by the time you get to court, what you're allowed to look at under the law is so constrained that you've probably already lost.

WHITNEY: Not surprisingly, Stillwater Mining Company is not a big fan of lawsuits, either, especially because they promote themselves as an environmentally-responsible company.

ALLEN: What you see before you are trash receptacles designed with the environment in mind. They have very, very heavy lids covered with steel grating, because the winds in the winter blow with such a velocity that anything else would go. We also have a complete recycling center.

WHITNEY: Chris Allen is a vice president at Stillwater Mining. He's proud of the company's cutting-edge water treatment plant and its 16-year track record of operating without a pollution citation.

ALLEN: We think that the limits that are in our current operating permits are entirely protective of the environment. But we're willing to try and do better.

WHITNEY: Because the company and the citizen's groups both wanted to stay out of court and were frustrated with regulatory agencies, they struck a compromise, forging what's known as a good neighbor agreement. Stillwater Mining promises to go above and beyond state and federal regulations, and the citizen's groups give up certain rights to sue.

ALLEN: We felt that 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.

WHITNEY: Both sides were motivated by the uncertain prospects of a lawsuit that the citizens had pending against Montana's Department of Environmental Quality. The suit charged that the agency failed to hold the company to strict enough water quality standards. After a full year of negotiations that both sides described as torturous, they signed a legally-binding contract that gives Stillwater Mining some peace of mind, and the public unprecedented third-party oversight of a mining operation. Citizens groups also get real decision-making power over certain company operations, including disposal of waste rock.

BOULANGER: This good neighbor agreement is most certainly precedent-setting.

WHITNEY: Amy Boulanger is with the Washington, D.C.-based Mineral Policy Center, one of the mining industry's fiercest critics.

BOULANGER: Not only can it be held as a model at other places, but it really behooves us to declare that it must be held as a model at other places, and that, really, the state and federal regulatory agencies, I think, have some catch-up work to do.

WHITNEY: The mining industry has long fought the kinds of stringent monitoring and standards the good neighbor agreement calls for. But things are changing, says Laura Skaer of the Northwest Mining Association.

SKAER: The industry is starting to recognize that the old approaches aren't working, and new approaches are needed. In essence, it's how the mining industry can be sustainable, is by sitting down with the local community and working with them to find solutions.

WHITNEY: Skaer says there are other places where mining companies are modifying their operations based on community input. But for now, the good neighbor agreement in Montana appears to be even more rare than the precious metals being mined here: a substantial change in the mining business that both the industry and environmentalists agree on. For Living on Earth, I'm Eric Whitney in Billings, Montana.



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