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'We have never experienced a loss like this': Stillwater Mine still dealing with impacts of June floods

Stillwater Mine deals with flood damage
Posted at 6:40 PM, Sep 06, 2022

NYE — Sibanye-Stillwater Mining is an economic force in Montana, generating about 6% of our state's annual revenue. But in the three-month shadow of a 500-year flood, the mine is still dealing with the impacts of the historic disaster—reporting revenue losses and eagerly awaiting the reconstruction of a washed-out road.

The underground mine extracts PGMs, or Platinum Group Metals, including platinum, palladium, rhodium and others.

Unprecedented flooding could mean big damage for an underground mine, but Stillwater escaped unscathed.

"We were really pleased with how all of our facilities performed," says Sibanye-Stillwater Vice President Heather McDowell Tuesday.

"All of our tailings facilities, all of our waste facilities, came through the flood with damage," McDowell said. "I really think what we took away is that our engineering practices are really solid."

A nearby stretch of Montana Highway 419 wasn't so lucky.

During the June 12-13 flooding of the Stillwater River, huge chunks of the highway were completely washed out, forcing the mine to suspend operations for the longest period in its history.

"We shut down operations and unbeknownst to us, we wouldn't operate again until the end of July.," McDowell said.

Ed Lorash, a Stillwater miner of 35 years and president of the mine's chapter of the Steelworkers Union, said payroll continued throughout the closure, but miners lost their incentive pay, which can double daily pay.

Lorash says a few people quit as a result, but most of the workers stuck with the mine through the closure.

The long closure wasn't the only 'first' the mine experienced through the flood event.

With operations suspended, the mine reported a significant loss of revenue as a result of the flood.

“Over that period of time, when we were not producing concentrate to bring down here to our metallurgical complex, it was about 60,000 ounces. That was the economic loss: over 60,000 ounces, which is incredibly significant," McDowell said.

The basket price of each ounce of material the mine produces is about $1,700, resulting in more than $100 million of losses for the mine.

“We have never experienced a loss like this," McDowell said.

McDowell is confident the mine will recover its economic hit and says the attitude in Sibanye-Stillwater is gratitude that the flooding did not cause any loss of life or serious injury.

Moving forward, a top priority is getting Highway 419 repaired and reconnecting the mine with its permanent infrastructure.

“We’re borrowing the roads, you’ve got neighbors around, spend limits, dust, things like that for us to be able to maintain," Lorash said.

The mine is currently using a temporary road built through neighboring private property.

Holding up the repair of Highway 419 is permitting and Mother Nature.

The river needs to be re-routed to its channel prior to the flooding, a job done by the Army Corps of Engineers, but that cannot be completed until a trout spawn is over.

McDowell says the mine has its own materials to rebuild the road from a rock quarry, but officials are waiting on the approval of permits.

Overall—McDowell says the road work needs to get underway before Nov. 15 or Stillwater will have to wait until spring.