A good neighbor gathering still going strong

Project updates given on Blitz and tailings
By: 
Mikaela Koski
Thursday, August 30, 2018

Photo by Lorrie Koski
          
            Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman.

A group of neighbors gathered for dinner and a discussion recently.

The second Good Neighbor Gathering brought together citizens from across the southern end of Stillwater County, as well as representatives of the Still-water Protective Association (SPA), Stillwater Valley Watershed Council (SVWC), and Sibanye-Stillwater at the historic Beartooth Ranch south of Nye along the Stillwater River.

After a complimentary BBQ dinner, the group packed into the meeting hall, and the various organizations addressed the citizens about ongoing work. Sibanye-Stillwater filled most of the two-hour discussion with updates on current projects.

The following are some of the topics discussed:

GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT

The foundation of the interaction between the SPA, SVWC, and Sibanye-Stillwater is the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA).

Signed in 2000, the GNA brought together the Stillwater Mine and several local conservation groups. The agreement sets up a mechanism for local oversight regarding the environmental and human impacts of the mine.

The group of “good neighbors” work directly with the mine on a host of issues, and many times the environmental restrictions to which Sibanye-Stillwater is legally bound based on the GNA are more stringent than those allowed by state statute. By working together on projects as they arise, problems are nipped in the bud – helpful for the citizens and the mine.

Sibanye-Stillwater U.S. Region Environmental Manager Randy Weimer explained that the mine values the input of the SPA and SVWC, as the groups’ work aids the mine in working toward its goals of employee safety, environmental protection, community health, and production sustainability.

Weimer described the qualities of a good neighbor – being respectful, cooperative, and understanding – and noted that “being a good neighbor is the only way to do business in Montana.”

Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman, from South Africa, attended the meeting, and he also discussed the GNA. He recalled how before Sibanye purchased Stillwater last year, the GNA was extensively reviewed.

“Not only have I seen it, I’ve studied it, and I think it’s world class,” Froneman said.

The GNA made a good neighbor gathering and a dialogue possible, he noted, saying that “trust comes with transparency.”

Sibanye was so impressed by the GNA, Froneman mentioned that he is trying to implement something similar at the property in South Africa.

SPA President Bill Hand described how the parties involved with the GNA are a “very successful group that is probably the envy of a lot of mining companies around the country.”

BLITZ PROJECT

Currently, Sibanye-Stillwater is working on an expansion project at the Still-water mine known as the Blitz Project. Stillwater Mine Vice President and General Manager Dee Bray gave an update at the gathering.

Work on the Blitz started in 2011 following the acquisition of a huge tunnel bore machine with the capability to cut into the mountain.

Currently, about 21,000 feet of tunnels have been completed, with less than 3,000 feet remaining. Less than 3,000 feet of a 6,100-foot decline has been completed.

The 2,600-foot vent raises to the surface will be completed later this year. The mine is in the final stages of the permitting process, as there will be some disturbance where the vent raises reach the surface. There will be daily helicopter flights from the mine to the vent site in the near future to prepare the area. Bray expects these flights to begin sometime next month.

As of July 31, the Stillwater mine had 916 employees, and the current post-expansion estimate raises that number to approximately 1,100-1,150 employees.

As for production, 328,000 ounces of platinum group metals (PGM) were produced in 2017, and the projected number for 2018 is 371,000 PGM ounces. After the Blitz is fully functional, Bray estimates the mine’s production could jump to more than 600,000 PGM ounces.

Production on the first stope of the Blitz began in September 2017. According to Bray, production on the second stope should kick off later this year.

WATER MANAGEMENT

During the mine’s production process, ground water is encountered. Stillwater Mine Environmental Manager Dave Johnson explained the treatment process and addressed questions and concerns from the crowd.

Johnson explained that underground, grouting is used to keep the ground water in its natural formation as best as possible.

For the water that does not stay in the formation, a series of pumps brings it to the surface, where it is then treated for nitrates, which get into the water from the explosives being used underground. One of the main treatment methods utilized by the mine is a biological method using bacteria.

By the time the treatment has been completed, the water is at a drinking quality. Some of the treated water is used underground, some is sent to the mill, and the rest is percolated back into the ground through sprinklers.

With the expansion, the mine is working to increase its water management capabilities.

There were several citizen questions about whether mining activities could affect the quality or quantity of local ground water in wells.

Johnson said the mine works with outside, third party groups to monitor both quality and quantity, to detect any issues so major problems will not arise.

As for the tailings ponds, he explained the area is lined with an impermeable layer to keep the nitrates in the wasterock from leaching into the ground water. There are also interception trenches that collect water and bring it back to the tailings pond.

The mine has never had a Department of Environmental Quality violation. Due to the GNA, if there is a certain environment standard that shows up in testing, a specific protocol is triggered to ensure any issues are addressed as early as possible.

TAILINGS PONDS

Weimer discussed the future of tailings and wasterock expansion at the Stillwater mine.

An expansion project means more wasterock, and according to Weimer, Sibanye-Stillwater is working with the SPA and the Northern Plains Resource Council to study alternative wasterock sites, alternative tailings technology, long term stability, and tailings closure.

After the studies are complete, the plan’s engineering will begin. Then, an independent review panel has to approve the plans. The permitting process can take 3-5 years, so the mine is looking to submit a plan for future wasterock storage in mid-2019.

The mine expects the Hertzler tailings facility to be at capacity in 2027, and the East Side wasterock storage facility should max-out in 2030.

This year, Sibanye-Stillwater will begin the approximately 5-year closure process for the Nye tailings storage facility. This process involves taking the water out, treating it, and then installing a wasterock cap on the top. The mine is looking into different future uses for the site.

Some citizens expressed concern that the tailings facilities would continue to gain height, and Johnson explained that while some of the facilities will continue to grow, there is a specific maximum height set for tailings facilities.

TRAFFIC MANAGEMENT

At last year’s gathering, citizens brought some traffic issues to the attention of mine staff. The citizens said some of the large trucks going back and forth from the mine were traveling at high speeds around towns.

Bray addressed the ongoing efforts the mine is taking to address the traffic, including altering training and interview schedules, efforts to reduce contractor vehicle usage, and trying to increase bus ridership. There have been speed tracking systems installed on all delivery trucks, and Sibanye-Stillwater is working to increase signage near Nye and Fishtail.

A citizen voiced her thanks to the mine for working to alleviate traffic issues, saying it’s already greatly improved from last year.

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