They’ve been called the secret ingredient of everything. Rare earths are a group of elements that make much of today’s technology possible, from smartphones to wind turbines to precision-guided missiles. For decades, China has dominated the rare earth market, but amid questions about the wisdom of allowing one country to control the supply chain, a mining project in Wyoming is getting underway. As Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce reports, if the mine opens, it would be only be the second one in the United States and the first new one in decades.
STEPHANIE JOYCE: The proposed mine would be on federal land just outside of Sundance, in northeast Wyoming. Rare Element Resources or RER discovered the Bear Lodge deposit in 2004, but it wasn’t until China drastically cut exports of rare earths in 2010 and prices skyrocketed that exploration got underway in earnest. But when it did, it did in a big way.
JOE MONKS: Every day is kind of like Christmas, opening up new boxes. You never know what you’re going to see.
JOYCE: That’s geologist Joe Monks. He’s showing me around one of the massive storage sheds where RER keeps the hundreds of thousands of feet of rock samples they’ve drilled in recent years. Monks and other geologists are trying to paint a 3-D picture of the deposit, to understand the mine’s potential. It turns out rare earths aren’t actually that rare, but it’s hard to find concentrated deposits of them that are economically recoverable. Not only that, they’re hard to extract from the surrounding rock.
MONKS: Gold, copper, silver, that’s very easy. You know, you dig a bunch of gold ore out of the ground, you throw some cyanide on it, it comes out, no problem. Rare earths are very difficult... they're very similar chemically to each other, so to get them out of the rock is very difficult.
JOYCE: Which means that in addition to the mine, RER will need a processing facility, where they’ll use chemicals to isolate and concentrate the rare earths. But because of mineral variation, every deposit has to be processed in a unique way, and Monks says convincing investors that their process works is the company’s next hurdle. RER is a small mining company, and the mine and plant will cost at least $400 million.
MONKS: And to get that money, we have to prove to investors that we can do it and we can make money on it, in order to pay you back.
JOYCE: If RER can do that, the processing plant will be built on what’s currently an unassuming patch of grass on the outskirts of Upton, about 30 miles south of Sundance and the proposed mine.
TOM BARRITT: That area there is where the Rare Elements would be setting up…
JOYCE: That’s Tom Barritt. He’s the CEO of Tiger Transfer, which operates the Upton Logistics Center. The Logistics Center is next to the proposed plant site and has a rail spur, storage facilities, power and access to natural gas. If the processing plant is built, it would use those services. As he gives me a driving tour, Barritt explains the business would be good not only for his company, but the entire community.
BARRITT: Small towns like Upton, you have to drag yourself up by the bootstraps to keep going. And these are things that make that work.
JOYCE: RER says it’s already received over 200 resumes from interested residents in Upton and Sundance. But not everyone is so enthusiastic. Bonita Carlson is a fifth-generation landowner in Sundance. She’s not opposed to the mine, but she’s worried that in their excitement, people aren’t thinking things through.
BONITA CARLSON: Almost maybe are starry-eyed and blinded by the possibilities.
JOYCE: Possibilities that Carlson thinks have been oversold. Politicians have talked about the potential for value-added processing -- not just mining the rare earths, but manufacturing the high-tech products they’re essential to. Carlson says that’s unlikely.
CARLSON: What will leave Upton is dust, that needs to be further refined. We can’t refine it further in the US.
JOYCE: Carlson isn’t wrong. Right now, the United States doesn’t have the ability to separate the rare earth concentrate into the individual elements that wind up smartphones or magnets... although several labs are working on it. That means the minerals will ultimately have to be shipped overseas, possibly even to China. Carlson says that undermines another frequently cited reason to develop the mine: that it’s important for national security because of rare earths’ role in weapons technology.
CARLSON: That has been part of the big push as far as the community grooming process and getting community members on board and the community excited about it… "You can really do your part! National security issue!" People need to be allowed to have not just part of the truth, but all of it.
JOYCE: In short, Carlson doesn’t want national security and economic development to overshadow potential environmental and health issues. Rare earth mining ventures in decades-past have left a long trail of Superfund sites and costly environmental clean-ups. Regulations and understanding of the potential risks have changed a lot since then, but there are plenty of unknowns. Sundance Mayor Paul Brooks says he doesn’t let himself worry about those.
PAUL BROOKS: I guess I’m pragmatic. I’m not turning my back on the environment. I’m pragmatic enough to understand that this deal is a lot bigger than I am and I just need to be ready for it. I can’t stop it, I can’t endorse, I can’t do anything. I have to be ready for it and that’s where I’m at.
JOYCE: The city has already started to prepare, updating its zoning and investing in a designated industrial area outside of town. Brooks says that’s as much as he can do to minimize any negative impacts.
BROOKS: You know, it’s sad to me when you drive across Wyoming and you see the impact of lack of planning on these towns. Here’s a beautiful setting and you’ve got a crane sitting in the middle of town. I just don’t think we want that.
JOYCE: It’s a balancing act though. Brooks says if the mine doesn’t happen, the planning will have been for naught, but if it does, it will be good to have thought things through in advance. Either way, the earliest the mine could open is 2017.
Public scoping meetings for the federal government’s permitting process will be held in Sundance and Upton on April 14 and 15, respectively. For more information, visit the project website.