Rae Fitzpatrick: In Balance at Stillwater

Let’s face it.  We need resources.  In a perfect world we could leave the forests and plains untouched and pristine.  It’s not a perfect world.  People concerned about the environment often forget this fact.  They use resources just like everyone else, but protest using damming rivers for hydroelectric power and mining for minerals that power their Priuses.  Isn’t there a way to compromise a way we can use resources and be environmentally conscious?  Stillwater Mining Company outside of the tiny town of Nye, Montana thinks so and proves it every day.  Recently, we went to tour this mine that is renowned for its safe and clean mining practices.

Mining in this area has been happening since the late 1800s.  Gold, Copper, and chrome were the coveted minerals at that time.  In 1967, the game changed.  John Manville core drilled the area and struck a valuable deposit that’s now referred to as the JM Reef, after its  founder.  This is a section of rock containing platinum and palladium.  It was formed around 2.6 billion years ago as a magma intrusion formed a batholith, slowly cooled, and caused layers of different rocks and minerals to separate into different layers.  The Beartooth uplift sheared off a section of this rock and lifted it closer to the surface and closer to its future of mining.  Only the uplifted section is economical to mine since the remainder is buried by 10,000 feet of sedimentary rock.

Now, the Stillwater Mining Company mines the platinum and palladium mostly for the production of catalytic converters which convert the carbon monoxide in vehicle emissions into water and carbon dioxide, essentially reducing grime and making the emissions cleaner.  That’s not what the mine is known for though.  They’ve received much publicity and praise for being environmentally-minded.  We met with the Environmental Manager and the Public Affairs Coordinator for the mine.  They talked us through the logistics of the mine and then showed us the operation with a facilities tour.

Stillwater extracts the rock from a 100-mile-long system of tunnels.  The rock is put through a sulfide floatation system.  The waste rock, is either put back into the tunnels or processed, buried, and reclaimed with native grass vegetation and natural contours.  The mine tailings are put in containment ponds.   The water from the ponds evaporates and the remaining tailings are also buried and reclaimed.

Miners find water underground while drilling for the valuable minerals.  At Stillwater, this water is pumped to the surface, treated to remove excess nitrogen, and used to water fields near one of the mine’s tailing ponds on their Hertzman Ranch property.  Other water from the tailings ponds is treated and also used to water these fields.  The mitigated land provides good forage for wildlife, including the bighorn sheep that frequent the area and are monitored by the mine to ensure health of the population.  The mine usually doesn’t allow hunting on these areas but they make an exception for disabled people and first-time hunters aged 12-14.  They host a hunting day and allow these people to harvest an animal.

Stillwater Mining Company also involves nearby communities and formed the Good Neighbor Agreement with them.  This allows community members to inspect the mine whenever they want and have a say in decisions regarding the mine.  Community members monitor water quality down river of the facilities and get involved with learning about mine practices.

Monitoring Bighorn Sheep, reusing water for agriculture, avoiding any chemical leaks or slag piles, reclaiming tailing piles and waste rock in a safe way are all examples of how the Stillwater Mine is operating in an environmentally sound way.  It’s a tangible example of how environmentalists, miners, and the environment can all collaborate.  It shows that the balance between needing resources and being environmentally safe is achievable.  It also gives me hope for the future.

I’ve noticed and lamented the contradictions in environmentalism for quite some time and have always wondered how our species, a species with such a large impact, would ever be able to overcome either our need for resources or our environmental degradation.  Even though I knew that the world is far from black and white, I still thought any sort of balance would be impossible.  Now I realize that we cannot just use resources, but must use them in a responsible way – as exemplified by Stillwater Mine.  It won’t be easy but through collaboration and a sincere appreciation for nature, I believe we can make environmentally-safe resource extraction a norm.

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