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Vermiculite mines face more trouble

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When Stansbury Holding Company, owner of two vermiculite mines in Montana at Hamilton and Dillon, filed its annual operations report with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, it was required to submit a $25 fee. The check bounced.

Patrick Plattenburg of the DEQ verified that the check was returned for “non-sufficient funds” the first time it was presented to the bank for payment. The matter has since been rectified, Plattenburg said.

But the fact that a $25 check couldn’t clear the bank is a significant one to Bonnie Gestring of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

“It’s clear this is a company that is financially unsuitable to be expanding its mining operations in Montana,” Gestring says. “Unfortunately there is little in Montana law that addresses the financial stability of mining companies as a criteria for operating in the state.”

Off and on for 14 years, Stansbury has proposed plans to reopen and expand unused vermiculite mines in the Sapphire Mountains east of Hamilton and the Ruby Range near Dillon. From the beginning, environmentalists around western Montana questioned the safety of the proposed Stansbury mining operations with the potential for releasing asbestiform fibers into the air.

At one of the first public meetings in Hamilton in the 1980s, a Stansbury mining engineer, Mark Welch, announced the Hamilton vermiculite assay testing appeared to be “totally asbestos free.” That statement was later retracted.

Similar claims were made this year at meetings in Dillon where local citizens pressed for a full Environmental Impact Statement rather than a less extensive Environmental Assessment for the recently reopened mine there. In a May 2000 press release, Stansbury states it has completed its own health risk assessment of the Dillon operation and the risk to Dillon residents is the same as “smoking one cigarette in a lifetime.”

In a June press release posted on its website, Stansbury states it has just acquired the Sweetwater Garnet Mine in Madison County and the accompanying mill in Beaverhead County near Dillon. According to the website (www.stansburyholdings.com), plans are to produce 20,000 tons of finished garnets per year.

The company has had a troubled financial past and a perpetual cash flow problem. In 1995, Stansbury went through bankruptcy and the company and five former officers were indicted in a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the Securities Exchange Act. The company recently received a $450 civil penalty for failing to file a $9,000 reclamation bond for ground disturbed years ago at the Hamilton mine site. Plattenburg said the bond has been filed now but he is not sure the penalty has been paid. Payment of earlier fines assessed for illegal work at the Dillon mine are now being negotiated by attorneys for Stansbury and the DEQ.

Plattenburg said comments from the public have been studied, and the DEQ will meet with other state agencies to study the comments and issue a decision on the EIS request in the next two weeks.

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