China’s stranglehold on the world’s rare earth mineral supply has re-ignited interest in Idaho, where rare earth minerals run through environmentally sensitive lands.
Arkansas-based U.S. Rare Earths has applied for permits to drill for minerals on three federally-leased properties in Idaho’s Lemhi Pass, Diamond Creek, and North Fork areas.
The U.S. Geological Survey already has documented rare earth reserves in those areas. The minerals are used in cell phones, flat screens, wind turbines, night vision goggles and numerous high-tech, military and green energy products. But China produces more than 90 percent of the world’s supply, and it recently restricted its exports.
Only one U.S. company, California’s Molycorp, is actively mining rare earth minerals.
U.S. Rare Earths has leased about 12,000 acres in Idaho, Colorado and Montana.
Last fall, U.S. Rare Earths flew a specially equipped helicopter over some of its Idaho property to measure the magnetic fields in the claims.
“You can guide your drilling by doing these sorts of aeromagnetic studies which tell you which areas have higher concentrations of the metals that you’re looking for,” said Daniel McGroarty, the company’s president.
Before any drilling begins, both the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have to sign off on the company’s plan of operation.
“This is the first attempt for any drilling in our area,” said Scott Feldhausen, a natural resource specialist with the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Feldhausen and agents from the U.S. Forest Service plan to spend time on U.S. Rare Earth lands next week. They will be doing an on-the-ground survey of the company’s drilling plan. They’ll be looking for possible environmental impacts the drilling might cause.
In Lemhi Pass some water bodies have been designated as critical habitat for chinook salmon, Feldhausen said.
If the company would need to build road, there might be problems for protected sage grouse and for elk. Livestock graze nearby.
Everyone in the area will have an opportunity to weigh in on the mining plan. The Shoshone-Bannock tribes already have expressed concern about the project, Feldhausen said.
Before U.S. Rare Earth can actively mining, it must complete several rounds of permitting. All of that can take up to 10 years, Feldhausen said.
U.S. Rare Earth’s McGroarty hopes that timeframe can be pared down.
“We really think that what we have is a very strong addition to the domestic supply,” McGroarty said.
Mining in Lemhi Pass could supply wind turbine producers with neodymium, a rare earth mineral discovered there by earlier miners and government agencies. One of the challenges, however, would be handling radioactive thorium. The rare earths are found in the veins of thorium.
There was mining in Lemhi Pass in the 1950s and 1960s, but that was long before there were cell phones and laptops, so no one took an interest in the rare earth minerals or the thorium, for that matter. As a result, Feldhausen said, Idaho has had to do lots of remediation for thorium over the years.
Last year, Gwenette Campbell, a scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, issued a paper with warnings about the threats to human health and to the environmental associated with mining radioactive minerals. Radioactive dust from thorium or uranium can travel long distances and can cause cancer, she notes.
Other metals found while mining rare earths can be a problem, too.
“Metals of special concern at rare earth mines include, but are not limited to, aluminum, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, manganese and zinc,” she wrote.
Once the contaminants are released during mining, she wrote, they can travel by air, soil or water.
Correction: May 3, 2012. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified one of the federal agencies with oversight of U.S. Rare Earth’s proposed mining operations. The U.S. Forest Service is one of the agencies that has to sign off on the company’s plan of operation.
Periodic table of the elements. The rare earth elements comprise 15 elements, which range in atomic number from 57 to 71, including lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). The elements are also commonly referred to as “lanthanides.” Yttrium (Y, atomic number 39) is also typically included with the rare earth elements group because it shares chemical, physical, and application properties with the lanthanides.
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