by Michael Howell
Last Wednesday, March 15, the Bitterroot National Forest responded to media reports on mineral explorations on Sheep Creek in a press release. West Fork District Ranger Dan Pliley was quoted as saying, “The Bitterroot National Forest has not received a draft Plan of Operations for any exploration drilling or a proposal to develop a mine in the Sheep Creek Area. If the Forest Service receives a plan, we will review the plan, and if warranted, will take the proposal through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The NEPA process would include the opportunity for public notification and comment and ensure compliance with applicable environmental laws and regulations before moving forward with the project.
Pliley told the Bitterroot Star that U.S. Critical Materials and U.S. Critical Metals Corp. submitted a Notice of Intent (NOI) to conduct exploration activities within their Sheep Creek registered lode claims using hand tools for sampling and geologic mapping. He said exploration activities in 2022 included soil sampling, stream sediment sampling, rock chip sampling, and mapping of historic mine adits and geophysical surveying. The NOI was approved for the 2022 field season and to date, the Forest Service has not received a proposal to conduct mineral exploration in 2023.
By law, processing locatable minerals plans is nondiscretionary for the Forest Service. Miners have possessory rights associated with mining claims which authorizes the miner the right to use the surface for mining purposes including use and occupancy necessary for processing. All miners are subject to 36 CFR 228 Subpart A including requirements to submit a plan of operations and post a reclamation bond. Prior to conducting any exploratory drilling, the companies would also need to obtain an Exploration License from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
Pliley emphasized that “any exploratory drilling, which is different from actual mining, would require a Plan of Operation, laying out exactly what type of methods, what type of equipment and we would look at the potential effects and environmental impacts and that could trigger a NEPA process.” He said that process includes public participation and could lead to a Categorical Exclusion, or an Environmental Analysis, or up to a full Environmental Impact Statement.
Asked how long that might take, Pliley said, “Until we know more it’s hard to say how long the process might take. It depends on exactly what they want to do and how extensive it is.” He said to date no notice of intent to do anything has been received in relation to the Sheep Creek area. Company officials have stated that they intended to do some exploratory drilling in the second quarter of 2023. (see last week’s article)
The companies in possession of mining claims extending over 4,750 acres in the Sheep Creek area are using the reports of the recent sampling study to attract investments in the project, which would involve some exploratory drilling and eventually active mining, with an estimated in the ground value of $40 billion, touting themselves as the highest-grade deposit in the U.S.
But they are not the only companies beating the bush for investors in the new – and projected to skyrocket – “need” for rare earth elements (REE). Most of the initial funding fueling this rash of potential REE development projects is coming directly from the Department of Defense, like the recent study conducted by Montana Tech and the mining companies in the local Sheep Creek Project.
Another company at work in the U.S. is American Rare Earth Limited. It’s actually an Australian company with assets in the U.S. It is 100% owner of La Paz Rare-Earth Project, touted as the largest rare-earth deposit in the U.S., located 200 km northwest of Phoenix, AZ, and the Halleck Creek rare earth project in Wyoming.
“Both have potential to be among the largest, rare earths deposits in North America,” it states on the company website. A 2021 drilling campaign doubled the size of the Indicated Resource and increased the size of the total resource estimate to more than 170 million tonnes of rare
earths mineralized ore plus added a new resource estimate of 4.4 million kg of high value Scandium Oxide.
According to the company’s website, the U.S. Department of Energy plans to provide federal funding for cost-shared research and development under the funding opportunity announcement (FOA) Carbon Ore, Rare Earth, and Critical Minerals (CORE-CM) Initiative for U.S. Basins. It calls the government initiative “a key driver and powerful incentive for the company to accelerate the growth and development of the La Paz and Hallek Creek projects.”
“As a key US strategic resource, this and other critical mineral development programs are designed to provide feedstock for US-based processing. This commercial pathway that includes US Department of Energy incentives, along with reduced permitting hurdles provided by the
Department of the Interior, allows WRE the opportunity to capitalize on the revival of a US supply chain for rare-earth elements (REE) and critical minerals. Our specific focus includes Scandium and especially the high-value REE Lanthanides needed for EV motors,” states the company.
One promoter of investment of the business who “may or may not be connected to the company” according to the attached disclaimer, states the company is well funded, finishing 2021 with over A$8 million plus having raised another A$1.4 million in the first two months of 2022.
“With a market cap of roughly A$161 million (US$117 million) it’s not your typical junior mining stock, but then again, your typical junior mining stock isn’t sitting on potentially the largest rare earth deposit in the USA,” he claims.
USA Rare Earth LLC is another player in the field. Owner and operator of the Round Top Heavy Rare Earth, Lithium and Critical Minerals Project in Hudspeth County, Texas, together with joint venture partner Texas Mineral Resources Corp., USA Rare Earth LLC is projected to begin mining 950 state-owned acres at the Round Top deposit in Sierra Blanca, Texas. USA Rare Earth has announced it will process rare earths onsite and projects the mine is likely to yield 16 or 17 rare earth elements and more than 300,000 metric tons of rare earth oxides. (One metric ton equates to 2,204.62 pounds.)
The company has acquired the neodymium permanent magnet manufacturing system, formerly owned and operated by Hitachi Metals in North Carolina, and the only commercial-scale system of its kind in the United States. USA Rare Earth is preparing to recommission the system for production, and once operational, plans to create a domestic supply chain that produces at least 2,000 tons annually of rare earth magnets.
“We will be the first company not only to extract, which is the mining component, but to operate the processing side in the United States,” says Aliesha Knochenhauer, Director of Environmental Services & Sustainability. “What makes us even more unique is we will be able to supply the entire supply chain by taking the material that we mine, processing [it] into rare earth oxides, and then creating the magnets.”
As part of the U.S. government’s strategy to secure reliable supplies of critical minerals, the Department of Defense (DoD) has announced contracts and agreements with two rare earth element producers in Texas to strengthen the domestic rare earths supply chain.
Texas-based Blue Line Corporation partnered with Lynas Rare Earths Ltd. – an Australia-based company and the largest rare earths mining and processing company outside China – plans to open rare earths processing facilities in Hondo, Texas. In February 2021, the DoD awarded Lynas a Defense Production Act Title III technology investment agreement and contributed $30.4 million to fund the construction of the Hondo facility. Lynas plans to ship rare earths from its mine in western Australia for final processing in Texas.
In November 2020, Urban Mining Co., based in San Marcos, Texas, entered into an $860,000 Defense Production Act Title III technology investment agreement with the DoD to conduct its small-scale pilot program of recycling rare earth elements from electronic waste to produce new permanent neodymium magnets.
Meanwhile, the only major up and running Rare Earth Element mine in the U.S., the Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine and processing facility in California, owned by MP Materials, is putting its own three-stage plan into effect that aims to create its own complete chain of operation from
mine to magnet production. MP Materials announced in February 2022 that it was awarded a $35 million contract with the DoD to support construction of a commercial scale processing facility for heavy rare earth elements at Mountain Pass. The company said that in a separate contract awarded in December 2022, the DoD committed $9.6 million to the company’s Stage 11 optimization, a project underway to restore LREE processing capabilities at the mine. In addition the company is developing a rare earth metal, alloy and manufacturing facility in Fort Worth, Texas.
Owners of the Mountain Pass Mine declared bankruptcy following a major environmental disaster involving pipeline leakages. The company was purchased by Chevron in 2005 but did not resume operations. By that time China had cornered the world market.
According to Julie Klinger, a geographer at the University of Delaware in Newark, the entire rare earth mining industry is wrestling with a legacy of environmental problems. The problem is the incredibly complex processing required to separate the rare earth elements from the ore in which it is bound up with every other element.
Klinger believes environmental problems were a major factor in China’s decision in 2010 to slash its export of the elements in 2010 by 40%. She notes that in 2010 officials in the city of Batou near its largest and most productive mines raised the alarm reporting that radioactive, arsenic and fluorine-containing mine waste, or tailings, was was being dumped on farmland and into local water supplies, as well as into the nearby Yellow River. The air was polluted by fumes and toxic dust that reduced visibility. Residents complained of nausea, dizziness, migraines and arthritis. Some had skin lesions and discolored teeth, signs of prolonged exposure to arsenic; others exhibited signs of brittle bones, indications of skeletal fluorosis, she states.
She notes that China’s State Council wrote in 2010 that the release of heavy metals and other pollutants during mining led to “the destruction of vegetation and pollution of surface water, groundwater and farmland.” The “excessive rare earth mining,” the council wrote, led to landslides and clogged rivers.
“Faced with these mounting environmental disasters, as well as fears that it was depleting its rare earth resources too rapidly, China slashed its export of the elements in 2010 by 40 percent. The new limits sent prices soaring and kicked off concern around the globe that China had too tight of a stranglehold on these must-have elements. That, in turn, sparked investment in rare earth mining elsewhere,” wrote Klinger.
It was these developments that led a new company called Molycorp to purchase the mine and resume mining in 2008. The company proposed a plan to avoid spilling wastewater into nearby fragile habitats, resumed mining, and introduced a “dry tailings” process — a method to squeeze 85 percent of the water out of its mine waste, forming a thick paste. The company would then store the immobilized, pasty residue in lined pits on its own land and recycle the water back into the facility.
Unfortunately, Molycorp “was an epic debacle” from a business perspective, says Matt Sloustcher, senior vice president of communications and policy at MP Materials, current owner of Mountain Pass mine. Mismanagement ultimately led Molycorp to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015. MP Materials bought the mine in 2017 and resumed mining later that year. By 2022, Mountain Pass mine was producing 15 percent of the world’s rare earths.
MP Materials, too, has an ambitious agenda with plans to create a complete supply chain. And the company is determined not to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors. “We have a world-class … unbelievable deposit, an untapped potential,” says Michael Rosenthal, MP Materials’ chief operating officer. “We want to support a robust and diverse U.S. supply chain, be the magnetics champion in the U.S.”
The company has a three-stage plan “to restore the full rare earth supply to the United States,” from “mine to magnet,” Rosenthal says.
Stage 1, begun in 2017, was to restart mining, crushing and concentrating the ore. Stage 2 will culminate in the chemical separation of the rare earth
elements. And stage 3 will be magnet production, he says.
All for Joe biden and the libturds to drive around in electric cars which we here in Montana don’t drive. So we don’t want to be part of Joe’s shit show and we certainly don’t want these polluters in our backyard tearing it up. Go away.