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The Stillwater Mining Co. is seeking permission to boost production on the East Boulder Mine, which is scheduled to begin operation next year.

The mine was previously permitted to mine 2,000 tons of ore a day but wants to increase that to 3,000-5,000 tons a day.

The company’s plans will require the development of a new environmental impact statement, said Pat Plantenberg with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The environmental impact statement will address three main issues as Stillwater Mining prepares to begin operating its East Boulder mine in 2002, according to company vice president Chris Allen.

The company operates a full-scale platinum and palladium mine at Nye, with refining and processing done at its smelter and refinery in Columbus.

“The EIS commingles several efforts,” he said. “It’s like an omnibus NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and MEPA (Montana Environmental Policy Act) document.”

One facet of the impact statement will deal with its water management plan at the East Boulder, Allen said. Another part asks for removal of the production cap at the East Boulder. The third addresses the long range plan for water management and treatment when the mines close.

Under the company’s current permit, treated water discharge was planned as a land application on Gallatin National Forest lands. Stillwater Mining’s new proposal would transport treated water by pipeline to the company’s property. The company bought the Boe Ranch, about seven miles north of its East Boulder mine, where the land is better suited for land application, according to the company.

According to Plantenberg, the new plan would give the company water disposal choices. The nitrogen-rich water is excellent fertilizer, but spraying must be adjusted to plant growth. The company has suggested using a pivot irrigation system, evaporation sprayers near its tailings impoundment and snow makers upstream from the water impoundment to dispose of treated water.

The company already has built a 32-acre tailings impoundment on the Boe Ranch.

Over the long term the company also wants to address water issues when the mines close. The life of the mines is projected to be 25 years, but Allen said dealing with reclamation plans and bonding levels “seemed appropriate at this time.”

He said the company, under its permit, is committed to water management when the mines close but the details had not been settled.

The third part of the EIS deals with removing the current 2,000 ton limit on the East Boulder mine. As it did on the Stillwater side in 1998, the company wants to be permitted to mine 3,000-5,000 tons per day. The significance of removing the production cap is how it might affect the labor force and impacts on the local community.

If the number of employees increased, it would trigger amendments to the Hard Rock Impact Plan which spells out what the company is required to do to lessen impacts.

“That (removing the production cap) is a major concern for people on the East Boulder side,” according to Arlene Boyd, chairman of the Stillwater Protective Association and a Northern Plains Resource Council board member.

The company’s current impact plan requires revision if more employees go to work than projected. Employment at the East Boulder could increase from 525 to 600-1,000, according to DEQ.

Plantenberg said when DEQ suggested conducting an EIS the company readily agreed.

“It’s a more defensible document (in terms of reducing appeals and challenges),” he said.

The state DEQ is the lead agency for the EIS with the U.S. Forest Service and state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation participating. A draft EIS is expected by spring 2002 with a final EIS expected by next summer, he said.

Two meetings are already scheduled to begin receiving public comment. The first will be in Absarokee July 18 at the Cobblestone School at 7 p.m.; the second will be July 19 at the Big Timber High School at 7 p.m.

“We will continue taking comments for several months,” Plantenberg said. “There was some concern expressed that people didn’t have time to look over the scoping document before those meetings so we want to assure people their comments will still be received,” he said.

Copies of the scoping document — the outline of issues — are available from DEQ, the Beartooth Ranger District of Custer National Forest, the Big Timber Ranger District of Gallatin National Forest, and the state DNRC.

Information on the plan is also available at the DEQ Web site: