No plans to mine near Hamilton
No plans to mine near Hamilton

Company will re-evaluate parts of vermiculite deposit

HAMILTON - Stansbury Holdings plans to revisit parts of its vermiculite deposit east of Hamilton this summer, although it doesn't expect to mine the Sapphire Mountain site anytime soon, the company's president said Thursday.

"Right now my plan is to re-evaluate certain parts of the deposit," said A.J. Coffman, Stansbury Holdings president. "Nothing more than that at this time. It will be some minor fieldwork. No more than a day's work."

Meanwhile, Stansbury is pressing ahead with the expansion of its vermiculite mine east of Dillon amid concerns by area residents and a dispute with state officials over its permitting procedures.

News of asbestos-related deaths and illness in Libby stemming from the former W.R. Grace and Co. mine has prompted closer scrutiny of vermiculite mining in Dillon and the Bitterroot.

Stansbury's interest in mining the site east of Hamilton dates back to the mid-1980s. Stansbury bought the supposedly asbestos-free vermiculite deposit on the flank of Skalkaho Mountain in 1985, announced plans to re-open and enlarge the open pit in 1986, and has generated controversy since.

Seven years ago, a proposal to disturb a total of 77 acres in its first phase and use a total of 139 acres of its 1,700 acres of claims drew strong criticism from Bitterroot Valley residents.

As part of an EIS in 1993, the Forest Service required a health-risk assessment by a team led by the University of Cincinnati. The study, panned by critics, concluded the cancer risks from the mine were minuscule.

Opponents also worried the mine would ruin elk habitat, bull trout habitat and water quality in St. Clair and Willow creeks, and local air quality. And they said the proposed 15 ore trucks a day past Corvallis' elementary school would pose a safety risk.

When the U.S. Forest Service approved a plan of operation in mid-1993, the move unleashed about 100 protests that a Forest Service appeals reviewing officer eventually rejected.

Stansbury still needed to get air and water quality permits and post a sizeable bond of more than $300,000 to continue with plans. The project has remained dormant since.

Lynne Dickman, Bitterroot National Forest geologist, said Wednesday that the Stansbury project in the Sapphire Mountains is "in no way ready" to move into production.

She said the Forest Service would need to revisit Stansbury's proposal because seven years have passed and technology and knowledge in the field have changed.

"Also, in light of raised public concern over the Libby situation," Dickman said.

But Dickman noted she didn't expect Stansbury to face the kind of health issues with asbestos that the Libby mine had.

Asbestos is a commercial industrial term used to identify the three most common types of asbestiform minerals: chrysotile, crocidolite and amosite. None of those minerals exist at the site, Dickman said.

An amphibole mineral called actinolite, which can exist in a form similar to asbestos, is present within the ore body. However, Dickman said the actinolite doesn't take the hairy, fibrous crystalline form of asbestos. Rather, it is in the form of a prism.

Coffman said the health risks at Hamilton were extensively evaluated, a process that cost more than $3 million over a five-year period.

"Hamilton was given a clean bill of health," Coffman said.

Last year, Dickman said the Forest Service gave Stansbury officials permission to take out a bulk sample - a pickup load - at the vermiculite site. It would go to the Dillon site to be screened and tested. Bad weather last fall postponed the sampling, so the firm probably won't get up there until July, she said.

"We want to take a sample next to them, to make everyone comfortable," Dickman said.

Meanwhile, Bitterroot residents that opposed the 1993 proposal are keeping a watchful eye. Though the Concerned Citizens Coalition led by Peter Moore disbanded two years ago, some former members are staying abreast of the issue.

Moore said the residential area northeast of Hamilton has grown rapidly since the early 1990s. The Stock Farm, an upscale and gated community, now rests in the foothills of the Sapphire Mountains.

"It's an issue the community will watch closely," Moore said. "This is very serious business to have in the state, much less in the neighborhood."

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