It’s easy to take things for granted. The cell phone in your pocket, the technology that makes hybrid cars work, the satellite that runs your GPS.
All of these high tech gadgets are totally reliant on a set of special and unique metals, known as rare earth elements. The minerals are key components in the technology surrounding our lives.
On today’s Dakota Digest we have a story on how all this ties into a plan for a new mine in the Northern most part of the Black Hills. Those in favor of the mine say it’s of strategic importance to the United States – but some locals and environmentalists are concerned about the track record for rare earth mines.
If you’re like me your smart phone is connected to you just about every waking hour of the day. Love it or hate it--it’s the sort of technology that almost all of us are using now. And there are some key elements that make it work.
“The Japanese have a great term for rare earths, the Japanese call them the seeds of technology. You can’t do technology without them,” says George Byers Vice President of Government and Community Affairs with is with Rare Element Resources.
Byers' company aims to establish a rare earth mine north of the Black Hills. He notes there are 17 rare earth elements in all. They have the kind of names that are hard to say five times fast.
“Neodymium, Dysprosium, Praseodymium, Europium, and Terbium” says Byers.
If you for some reason need to know where any of these elements sit on the Periodic Table--you’ll have to pull out your smart phone and Google it. In doing so you will use a bunch of rare earths elements that came out of a mine in China. That’s because China has the corner on the world market – they produce a vast majority of the world’s rare earths.
“One of the things that’s happened with China, in the last couple of years is they have reduced their production and their exports by approximately 50 percent. There is great angst from Japan, to the European Union, to America as to how can our countries start producing more of these,” says Byers.
Byers points out that that right now there is only one rare earth mine in the United States. Enter the Bear Lodge Mountains, they’re actually more like a set of hills, they sit north of Sundance Wyoming, in between the Northern Black Hills and Devils Tower–and they are the proposed site of the Bull Hill Mine. The company is drilling and sampling the ore body at the proposed mine site.
“So in this room back here this is our geo-teching room all the core comes in from the last 24-hours of drilling,” says Joe Monks, geologist with Rare Element Resources.
Monks says the core samples drilled out of the ore deposit are carefully surveyed and logged.
“So we know how much of gold, how much of the rare earths, iron manganese whatever you want to know,” says Monks.
Company officials like George Byers are pretty excited about what they’re finding in the samples.
“We’re working with one of the three or four best deposits in the world outside of China for rare earths and it’s right here in Wyoming one of the best jurisdictions in the world for mining,” says Byers.
Byers says over 40 million dollars are already invested in the mine. By 2016 Byers says the mine hopes to be producing over 10-thousand tons of concentrated ore per year. He says that’s projected to be close to 10% of the global demand for Rare Earths. But not all the locals are convinced this mine is a good idea. Dick Fort is with the group Action for the Environment. He points out rare earth mines have a bad environmental track record.
“I think those are not materials we should be monkeying with. It’s like the uranium in that regards we should stay away from these dangerous substances,” says Fort.
Rare earth deposits do include some radioactive elements. But company officials insist this deposit in Wyoming only has normal background levels of radiation. They also say the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is carefully monitoring the work at the mine–to make sure safe levels are maintained. Byers says the company is meeting or exceeding all environmental and safety standards. He adds that because of the strategic importance of the mine-there is an effort to fast track this project.
“The Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture understand the need to accelerate and streamline the permitting process, we’ve had cooperation, says Byers.
But the idea of speeding into a mining operation doesn’t still well with some locals. Wilma Tope ranches in the Bear Lodge Mountains—she wants to make sure the mine doesn’t leave behind the sort of problems that could threaten the local way of life. She’s asking government officials to move slowly and to safeguard the environment.
“Protecting our heritage, protecting our ranch land, our farming, and especially our water,” says Tope.
Company officials insist the mine will not impact the quality or quantity of water in the area. George Byers calls the mine site itself more like a quarry–the ore will be removed from the site and trucked away. He says most of the mine processing is being done at an industrial park in the town of Upton, Wyoming, near rail transportation. He says the mine is projected to be roughly the size of a very large parking lot, about 2000-feet by 3000 feet.
“Really as mines go, really a small mine. But it’s going to be a mine with enormous national significance. It’s going to be a very important mine, says Byers.
While some local landowners and conservationists continue to be wary - the company is hoping for a quick and easy Environmental Impact Statement on the proposal. This EIS process is underway and it gives the public a chance to chime in. It’s one of the regulatory hurdles yet to be overcome, starting a mine can take many years. Officials with Rare Element Resources say they hope to begin mining by 2015.