The proprietor of two valuable metal mines located in south-central Montana has decided to halt progress on an expansion initiative, resulting in the dismissal of approximately 100 workers. Representatives of the mines stated on Thursday that this decision stems from a significant decline in the price of palladium over the past year.
Sibanye-Stillwater made the announcement of the layoffs on Wednesday, affecting the sole platinum and palladium mines in the United States, situated near Nye, Montana. The layoffs also extend to other Sibanye-owned facilities in Montana, including a recycling operation, with an additional 20 unfilled positions since October.
Approximately 67% of mining contract workers at the mine, totaling 187 individuals, will also be impacted. Heather McDowell, a vice president at Sibanye-Stillwater, noted that some contract work has been phased out in recent months. While the restructuring is not anticipated to significantly affect current mine and recycling production, it is expected to reduce costs for the company.
The drop in palladium prices, from a peak of around $3,000 per ounce in March 2022 to approximately $1,000 per ounce currently, has prompted this strategic decision. Although platinum prices have also decreased, the impact is not as pronounced.
Sibanye-Stillwater can still operate profitably on the west side of the Stillwater mine in Nye at current palladium prices. However, the expansion on the east side is deemed not cost-effective at present, according to McDowell.
Platinum finds its use in jewelry, while palladium is essential in catalytic converters, playing a crucial role in controlling automobile emissions.
Sibanye acquired the Stillwater mines in 2017 for $2.2 billion, and the Montana mines provided support to the company during challenging times, such as strikes and worker fatalities in its South Africa gold mines.
In recent years, as platinum and palladium prices surged, Stillwater aimed to expand and added approximately 600 new jobs to its mines. However, the current market conditions necessitate a reassessment of these expansion plans.
The Forest Service granted preliminary approval on Tuesday for an expansion of the company’s East Boulder Mine, extending its operational life by about a dozen years. Environmental groups have opposed this proposal, advocating for safeguards against potential accidental releases of mining waste into nearby waterways.
McDowell mentioned that there are currently 38 open positions at the East Boulder Mine, and the company hopes that some of the laid-off Stillwater workers will consider applying for these roles. The distance between the Stillwater Mine and the East Boulder Mine is approximately a two-hour drive.
To assist those laid off, the Montana AFL-CIO, the Department of Labor and Industry, and unions across the state are collaborating to help individuals file claims for unemployment benefits and find new employment opportunities. This initiative follows a recent incident at the Sibanye-Stillwater Mine involving the death of a contract miner on October 13. Noah Dinger from Post Falls, Idaho, lost his life in an accident while performing duties related to bolting wire panels onto the stone walls of an underground area.