Rare-earth reality check

  • Some rare earth oxides, clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium and gadolinium.

    Peggy Greb, USDA ARS
 

Not far from Devils Tower in the Black Hills of eastern Wyoming, work crews are preparing to drill dozens of new holes amid ponderosa pines and rolling meadows. But they're not looking for gold. Instead, they hope to strike neodymium, europium and other exotic-sounding rare earth metals -- a group of 15 elements, plus two others with similar properties, used in clean-energy technology, military hardware and cell phones. Initial drilling on the Canadian company's 2,400 acres of mining claims has revealed concentrations that are "bigger and better than we expected," says Don Ranta, CEO of Rare Element Resources, owner of the proposed Bear Lodge Mine. "It's very likely we'll find a commercial deposit."

Similar optimism has triggered a run on claims in Idaho, Alaska, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. A U.S. Geological Survey report released last November outlined 23 "principal" domestic deposits, 19 of them in Western states. Ninety-seven percent of the world's processed rare earth oxides comes from China and the country has been limiting exports and driving up prices since last year -- spurring the rush.

Beyond all the hype and frenzied activity, though, the rare-earths industry must overcome the environmental challenges that shuttered American production a decade ago, as well as a lack of domestic experience in and infrastructure for refining the metals. Lawmakers are scurrying to introduce bills that would help bring the country back up to speed and complete its rare-earths supply chain, from mining to manufacturing. Whatever happens, the West will feel the impacts.

The United States once dominated the rare-earths market, thanks to the Mountain Pass Mine in Southern California's Mojave Desert. The strip mine opened in 1952 and, at its peak, produced 70 percent of the world's supply of rare earth metals. But processing rare earths creates distinctive problems. The tailings that are left behind often contain radioactive thorium and uranium. And highly corrosive hydrochloric acid must be used to help extract the individual elements to make powdered concentrates and then refined oxides, which are used in the manufacturing of alloys and magnets.

The oil company Unocal, which used to operate Mountain Pass, handled the tailings and dealt with about 850 gallons per minute of acid-laden wastewater by piping it to evaporation ponds in the desert. During the 1980s and '90s, pipeline breaks and leaks spilled enough waste to fill an Olympic swimming pool, costing the company $1.4 million-plus in fines. That and a price decline triggered by increased Chinese production led the mine to close in 2002.

Meanwhile, Congress closed the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1995, halting government mining research, some of which was directed at improving rare-earth recovery. "We lost all our mining expertise and mineral-processing expertise," says Keith Long, a 20-year veteran of the USGS and a co-author of the recent agency report.

By the time mining ceased at Mountain Pass, rare earth metals had become necessary for many products, including compact fluorescent light bulbs, wind turbines, hybrid-electric batteries and missile defense systems. The disparity between U.S. consumption and production finally got the attention of policy-makers, mining officials and would-be investors in the last few years after industry analysts and government reports began highlighting China's market muscle and its implications for national security.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: