The question is is it possible for the wealthy mining corporation to ever truly be a good neighbour – good neighbor agreements, or GNAs, aim to hold big firms accountable for their environmental conduct – but how does it work in practice?
Twenty years ago, a group of cattle ranchers, sheep herders and community members in rural Montana came together and struck a rare agreement with a mining company: be liable for community-set environmental standards in exchange for unobstructed use of the land. But today, Sibanye-Stillwater, the owners of two mines in Stillwater county and Sweet Grass county, seeks to expand. The contract negotiated 20 years ago doesn’t account for that. A delicate relationship – and the state’s natural beauty – hangs in the balance. Can they continue to tame a corporation?
The creators of the original document and new community advocates say they expect the mining company to hold up their end of the bargain and continue to negotiate future plans in good faith with the people who live and work there. Good neighbor agreements (GNAs) are legally binding contracts that are generally effective at holding corporations accountable for their environmental conduct – and while there are very few in place in the US, experts say they could be replicated in cities and towns across the country.
The story is instructive about the documents’ strengths and weaknesses: in 1999, three grassroots organizations – the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC), the Cottonwood Resource Council, and the Stillwater Protective Association (SPA) – sued to halt the construction of a mine. Going to court was expensive and timely, and ultimately ineffectual. Council members wanted a creative way of remaining on the inside of mine operations without being beholden to the mine’s operators, so they asked for a good neighbor agreement. Negotiation with the mine’s owner took over a year, but the result is considered the “Cadillac” of GNAs, because the contract applies directly to the mines themselves, regardless of who owns them. Still, the GNA isn’t a magic bullet. It “doesn’t provide for us [a way to] to stomp our foot and say ‘no more,’” said Betsy Baxter, a former rancher who lives on the edge of the East Boulder river, which runs near the East Boulder mine. “This is a commercial enterprise [we’re dealing with]. We have to do our best to mitigate and navigate the issues that come up with expansion.”
The situation that NPRC and the other councils face illuminates a central tension between environmentalists and extractive industries: Sibanye-Stillwater and other mining companies make money off a finite resource by degrading the environment, and moving into new land is how they remain relevant, even if those are areas the community seeks to preserve.
Smoothing over that tension is what the GNA has been historically good at. The contract has created a taskforce and an oversight committee which address other water and soil concerns. Sibanye-Stillwater is also obligated to fund an environmental audit, fish-monitoring program and groundwater study – as well as pay for a mining and water quality engineer handpicked by the councils. Abiding by the GNA means following “water, soil, air and traffic provisions that are above and beyond what current state and federal laws require,” said Charles Sangmeister, an SPA member who also sits on the taskforce.
Like many volunteers, Sangmeister spends hundreds of hours every year facilitating mine activity, either physically at the water’s edge, measuring pollution levels or at the meeting room table, talking about expansion plans.
These are some of the things GNAs are good at: creating a model for accountability that is rooted in public advocacy and a community’s unique environmental needs. For example, Sibanye-Stillwater is also responsible for busing workers to their mines – a provision the original council members introduced in order to reduce traffic and air pollution from cars.
But for all its upsides, the GNA is still a contract, and like any other, the community had to give something up in order to win such staunch environmental provisions. In this case, the councils gave up the right to sue the company extracting platinum and palladium ore from the two mines covered under the contract.
Members now say that their best leverage with dealing with Sibanye-Stillwater is the relationship they’ve facilitated over the last two decades, one they hope is based on mutual respect.
Most of the members of the council do not have backgrounds in engineering, geology, or environmental science, yet nevertheless attended hours-long planning meetings and studied blueprints in order to best represent the community’s needs to Sibanye-Stillwater leadership.
“I think the company respects that we have made it our business to be as knowledgeable about mining as we possibly can be,” said Teresa Erickson, the former staff director of the council.
For example, community members have strived to learn about the risks of tailing impoundments, permanent structures built into the physical landscape that hold waste from mining – and which Erickson says Sibanye-Stillwater wants to double in size. A representative from Sibanye-Stillwater confirmed that the company plans to double the size of its tailing facilities, but added that it also plans to double production, and that any new facility will take decades to fill up.
This type of community organizing is a virtuous circle: the more the council members have actively participated in the mines’ operations, the more experience and knowledge they’ve gained, making them better advocates for their community. Over the years, volunteers have helped avoid possible water pollution catastrophes; because of their oversight, “there hasn’t been a bad spill, there hasn’t been a fish kill, there haven’t been issues,” said Baxter.
And yet there are no guarantees that the council can meaningfully influence Sibanye-Stillwater’s plans for expansion. “It’s been tough. This has not been a happy little love story,” said Erickson. Baxter acknowledges that there’s some irony to their organizing – Sibanye-Stillwater mines platinum and palladium, minerals used for catalytic converters to manage car smog. But that doesn’t mean she and other Montanans simply have to accept the mining companies’ terms of business. “We have to sort of sit in that space and say, ‘OK, but we are going to hold you accountable and demand the highest level of responsiveness that we can,’” Baxter said.
Heather McDowell, who heads legal, environmental, and government affairs for Sibanye-Stillwater, said: “We believe the GNA feedback and the collaborative approach to addressing issues allows us to really get things right from an environmental and community standpoint.”
Members of the taskforce and oversight committees like Sangmeister and Baxter – like most civilians in the US – don’t have the power to unilaterally stop corporations, but for now, the lines of communication with this particular neighbor remain open. The work ahead of them is the same as it was 20 years ago: stay at the table, arm themselves with information, and keep the conversation going.