Stillwater Good Neighbor Agreement

Posted: Jul 1, 2004

Objective: The legally binding Good Neighbor Agreement sets measurable goals and establishes a means for citizens to participate in oversight and decisions about Stillwater Mining Company (SMC) operations that could impact the local communities, economy and environment. To minimize future litigation, the agreement provides for open lines of communication between local citizen groups and the mine for resolving disputes.

Participants: Stillwater Protective Association, Cottonwood Resource Council, The Northern Plains Resource Council, Stillwater Mining Company.

History: A bucolic, sparsely populated landscape stretches across south-central Montana, where the Boulder and Stillwater Rivers rush from high mountain ranges to meander through rolling ranchlands. It's where the Stillwater Mining Company bores into the northern flank of the Beartooth Mountains for palladium, a metal used in automobile catalytic converters.

 Mine Area
In the 1990s, the price of palladium skyrocketed as air-quality laws toughened under the Clean Air Standard and auto industry demands outstripped supply. Seeking to expand its operations, Stillwater Mine Company applied for permits to remove a production cap and discharge wastewater into one of the rivers.

The Stillwater Protective Association (SPA), a group of local ranchers and conservationists, filed suit against Montana's environmental regulatory agency after it issued a permit allowing expanded mining operations. In the neighboring county, SPA's sister group, the Cottonwood Resource Council (CRC), geared up to challenge a proposed discharge permit for the East Boulder River at SMC's other mine site. Both organizations are affiliates of Northern Plains Resource Council, a statewide family agriculture and conservation group. Through Northern Plains, CRC and SPA brought media and public pressure to bear on the company, urging to come to the table and "be a good neighbor."

These actions set in motion nearly a year of bumpy negotiations between the mine and three conservation groups that wanted the mine to operate under greener standards. All sides were able to hammer out a legally binding agreement that was signed in the spring of 2000.

Key providions in the Stillwater Good Neighbor Agreement include:
  • providing citizen oversight of mining operations to ensure protection of the area's quality of life and productive agricultural land;
  • establishing clear and enforceble water quality standards that go above and beyond state requirements;
  • providing local communities with access to critical information about mining operations and the opportunity to address potential problems before they occur;
  • ensuring public safety and security while protecting the interest of miners through traffic plans designed to reduce mining traffic on country roads;
  • raising the bar for environmental excellence by setting goals and objectives for developing new technologies.
The agreement outlined a framework for involving the local communities in monitoring the mine's impacts.  The agreement also included specific goals for completing baseline water studies, stricter water pollution limits for the Stillwater and East Boulder rivers; independent environmental audits of both mine sites; a mitigation plan for a tailings site know as the Hertzler Ranch; and the establishment of conservation easements. 

By 2004, the parties had completed all of the goals set forth in the agreement and decided that an update was needed to establish new goals based on current management practices.  The update took the form of an amendment to the agreement, referred to as the "2005 Amendment." 

Accomplishments: The Stillwater Good Neighbor Agreement is unique in that it's the only one of its kind between a local community and a hardrock mine. The agreement outlines a framework for involving the local communities in monitoring the mine's impacts.  One of the most cited accomplishments of the agreement has been the citizen water quality monitoring program for the East Boulder and Stillwater Rivers. Other accomplishments of the Good Neighbor Agreement include safer roads through a comprehensive traffic reduction plan; citizen access to information through audits of the mine's compliance with clean water and air laws, independant reviews, and an open-door policy between the mine and community; better protections for clean air and water through a baseline water quality study and strict water pollution limits; protection for open space through over 2,220 acres of conservation easements; pilot testing and field study of innovative new technologies to address mine waste tailings; and a volunteer, citizen-based water sampling system to monitor water quality of the East Boulder and Stillwater watersheds.

The renegotiated agreement through the 2005 Amendment also resulted in major benefits, for the mine and the community.  The amendment included water management plans for both mines that ensure that 90% of pollutants are treated for the duration of mining operations.  Over the next three years the company will further optimize water management practices to reach as close to zero discharge of pollutants as is technically possible.  The agreement also included a provision for the independent review of the company's performance bonds (a financial assurance deposit) and reclamation plans every five years. Most other key components of the Good Neighbor Agreement remain the same.

Challenges/Constraints: Maintaining community involvement in the Good Neighbor Agreement and the various committees involed in negotiations has been challenging.  Volunteers spend between twenty and sixty hours a month keeping up to date on all the various aspects of the agreement, including operating permints and water monitoring.  As a result of the work involved, it has been difficult to keep unpaid volunteers engaged. 

A Russian company, Norilsk Nickel, has acquired a majority stake in the stock of the company. At the time of the acquisition, mine officials said that the Russian company's purchase would bring financial stability and wouldn't disrupt the principles outlined in the Good Neighbor Agreement. While the Northern Plains Resource Council initially adopted a wait-and-see stance, concerned that Russian environmental and labor standards have historically been considerably less rigorous than U.S. standards, so far the agreement and the standards have not been affected by the change.

According to Sarah Zuzulock, a technical specialist involved in implementing the agreement, making the agreement legally binding and including a requirement for alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes before any of the parties can back out  has been very a very important component in the success and continued implementation of the agreement.  "Having ADR in the agreement keeps people at the table," Zuzulock said.

For mor information see:

Billings Gazette Story

Northern Plains Resource Council

Stillwater Mining
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