Good Neighbor Agreement turns 20

Thursday, May 14, 2020
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The pristine Stillwater River is one example of what the Good Neighbor Agreement has accomplished — and serves as proof that a large mining operation can function without causing irreparable harm to the habitat. (Photo courtesy of the Northern Resource Council)

May 8 marked the 20th anniversary of the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between the now Sibanye-Stillwater mine, the Northern Resource Council, the Stillwater Protective Association (SPA) and the Cottonwood Resource Council.

It is an anniversary worthy of noting, given the fact that the legally-binding agreement not only ensures the responsible development of the mine and protection of the natural resources, but is cited around the world as being a gold-standard for organizations to try and recreate.

As Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neil Froneman told a group last summer, “That agreement is first class.”

Froneman, whose company bought the mine in 2016, is so impressed with the agreement that he is trying to implement it at other mining sites.

In effect since 2000, the GNA is a work in progress as new projects and developments are encountered.

In a nutshell, the GNA protects water, air and other natural resources beyond state requirements, at the agreement of all sides involved.

FROM THE NORTHERN RESOURCE COUNCIL

According to a news release from the Northern Resource Council, the GNA provides a legal framework that “gives local people a direct say in mine-related decisions that affect their communities and the watersheds of the Boulder and Stillwater Rivers.”

Protecting such things as the water quality have also preserved the “rural quality of life” in the area.

According to the news release, in the 1990s, local residents in the two watersheds sought ways to preserve the pristine waterways and natural landscapes seated below stretches of Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. Concerned about the impacts of the growing mine operation, community members sent a letter to the mine — as neighbors instead of legal adversaries — inviting company officials to sit down and talk through concerns. The mine agreed.

After a year of tough negotiations, the GNA was signed on May 8, 2000.

Melville rancher Paul Hawks is a member of Cottonwood Resource Council and was part of the original team that negotiated the agreement in 2000. Hawks describes the agreement as a model for expanding how to think about industry-community relations.

“Successful community development of natural resources goes beyond creating jobs. It recognizes the other values that make a community a nice place to live and prosper,” said Hawks, in the news release.

“It seeks to give equal voice to those values throughout the planning, development, operation, and closure of that resource project. The Good Neighbor Agreement gives that voice a formal seat at the table.”

The GNA has endured even as the mine has changed ownership four times in the subsequent decades. Despite the challenges, it remains a working example of how ranchers, rural communities, and mining companies can work together to address local environmental and economic issues without going to court.

“In an era of increased political polarization, when the conflict and division between people with different views of the world are rarely resolved, the Good Neighbor Agreement proves that sustained cooperation is possible,” said Charles Sangmeister, a member and past president of Stillwater Protective Association who lives in Nye directly across the road from mine operations.

According to the news release, recent additions to the GNA have expanded testing of groundwater and require the mine to take immediate action if contamination is found.

For two decades, the Good Neighbor Agreement has:

•Provided for citizen oversight of mining operations in order to ensure that the area’s quality of life and productive agricultural land are protected

•Established clear and enforceable water quality standards above and beyond state requirements

•Created a program of citizen involvement to study the water quality and biological health of the rivers

•Improved public safety by providing bus transportation for mine workers, which reduces traffic on rural roads

•Prevented the development of “man-camps”

•Given local groups access to expert technical advisors