Guest opinion: Good neighbor agreements take 2 sides

April 28, 2014

Categories: Clean Water, Hardrock Mining, Northern Plains Resource Council, Plains Speaking

Mary E. Fitzpatrick, PhD, of Billings is a Northern Plains member and former Chair: Thanks, Gazette editorial board (“Getting along with Beartooth neighbors,” April 3), for highlighting a solution that could resolve community concerns around oil and gas development on the Beartooth Front: a happy medium where a healthy environment and industrial development can coexist, similar to the Good Neighbor Agreement with the Stillwater Mining Company. But it’s essential to remember that the Good Neighbor Agreement did not happen by itself. Nor was it simply the result of altruism by the Stillwater Mining Company.

The Good Neighbor Agreement is a negotiated settlement between the Stillwater Mining Company and three citizen-run conservation groups, whereby two platinum-palladium mines, deep in Stillwater and Sweet Grass counties, bus in their workers each day, allow citizen oversight of mine activities, and meet water quality standards that exceed state regulations. The agreement is a national model of how an extractive industry can work with local citizens concerned about increased traffic, noise, and the quality of air and water.

3 citizens groups

While SMC deserves a lot of credit for its part in the GNA, its proven environmental record and for being willing to promote it to other mining companies, the GNA was made possible by the dogged determination of the local grassroots citizen organizations Stillwater Protective Association, Cottonwood Resource Council and Northern Plains Resource Council. Frequently the citizens’ side of this agreement goes unrecognized, but it really does take all four parties to work.

The many shortcomings of laws and regulations, and the agencies that are supposed to enforce them, often leave communities to deal on their own with the consequences of irresponsible developers only seeking profit. Anyone interested in ensuring that the Energy Corporation of America is a “good neighbor” should understand that educated, organized citizens are essential in making that happen. ECA has piled up over a hundred environmental violations in other states; we cannot just expect better behavior here. In fact, John Mork, ECA’s CEO, has threatened to make our area look like the Bakken.

If the oil and gas industry wants to become a responsible part of our communities, they need to communicate with citizens who live here. If they’re willing to come to the table, there could be a way to work out a favorable agreement, but only if they’re willing to negotiate, take local concerns seriously, and be accountable for how they operate.

Concerned about ECA

So far, the ECA hasn’t shown the slightest interest in the community. Citizens have been ignored, shut out of the process, and slighted by the company’s attorney. On top of that, the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation is doing its best to keep ECA happy and unaccountable to its neighbors. Living with the oil and gas industry in Carbon, Stillwater and Yellowstone counties is going to take a great deal of coordination and cooperation between citizens and operators. We have already seen that ECA is not going to do it if it doesn’t have to.

If our communities want to end the “culture of conflict” between citizens and the oil and gas industry, we should expect nothing less from ECA than the type of commitment made by Stillwater Mining Company through the Good Neighbor Agreement. It will take from us citizens nothing less than the effort and doggedness shown by SPA, CRC and Northern Plains members — and the support of our communities in doing so.

By Mary Fitzpatrick
Billings Gazette
April 27, 2014

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