Don’t forget America’s rare earth potential
How far out into space would you get piling, one upon one, government reports that were subsequently shelved and not acted upon? Your guess is a good as mine, but it would be a very, very long way.
One such report now seemingly gathering dust was the 104-page report in 2010 from the US Geological Service entitled The Principal Rare Earth Elements Deposits of the United States – A Summary of Domestic Deposits and a Global Perspective. It was of its time: the Americans were terribly worried about their rare earth vulnerability with China controlling world supply.
There will come a time when the report gets dusted off. In the meantime, it is a reminder how much, over the past five years, the concern about rare earth supplies has changed. Also, however, it should not just be forgotten.
At the time the USGS issued its report, Mountain Pass was still closed. That mine is now in operation and some other projects are making solid progress – Bear Lodge in Wyoming, for example, is now slated for start-up in 2017.
Generally speaking, though, action has been slow. This is not surprising given that prices have crumbled and it would be hard for any company to start from scratch in the present climate. That said, the problem for the U.S. (and the West generally) has not gone way. As I reported here on Investor Intel last week, the Japanese and South Koreans seem to have been lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent easy availability of illegally mined rare earths out of China. The Europeans are, by contrast, certainly still worried about their reliance on China. The U.S. still has some focus on the issue, but it is hard to judge sitting here in Australia the degree of urgency (or not) involved. A new rare earth crunch (or crisis) cannot be discounted.
Re-reading the 2010 USGS report, one is struck by the number of projects that were identified. Many will be lower in priority if they are dominated by light rare earth elements, or have very low grades. Apart from Mountain Pass and Bear Lodge, the USGS identified 15 rare earth projects located in the United States.
But I will today just look back at just one, Pea Ridge in Missouri. The 2010 report identified a resource there of 600,000 tonnes, grading at 12% total rare earth oxides, or a contained REE quantity of 72,000 tonnes. Pea Ridge was (and is, as we shall see) an iron ore mine: it was developed in 1957 by the Bethlehem Steel and St Joseph Lead Company and operated until 2001. Immediately after that, the focus became its associated resource of rare earths and that continued to the case for most of the decade.
The USGS report said Pea Ridge, in terms of REE, was dominated by lanthanum and cerium but the breccia pipes were also “relatively enriched” in heavy rare earths, including dysprosium, holmium, erbium, ytterbium, lutetium and yttrium.
In October 2010, just before the USGS report was published, Reuters carried an item that the huge trading company Glencore International and the project’s then owner, Wings Enterprises, were going to re-open Pea Ridge, as both an REE and iron ore operation. They were also going to process the rare earths contained in the mine’s tailings lake, left there from earlier iron mining.
Then in 2012, the St Louis Post Dispatch reported that Wings has sold the project to Canadian company MFC Industrial and St Louis-based Alberici Constructors. The latest news from the latter partner is that Pea Ridge will be restarted, but as a producer of chemical grade magnetite iron concentrates. There is no mention of rare earths.
Earlier in 2010 the USGS had issued separate report on Pea Ridge as part of its minerals at risk efforts. Also in 2012, several REE projects received USGS grants; they were Music Valley in California, a search for undiscovered thorium-REE-uranium deposits in New Mexico, and a buried REE and niobium deposit in southwest Nebraska.
It is useful to be reminded, from time to time, that, in the background, work continues in the U.S. on this very important issue. And there may come a time when Pea Ridge’s REE potential is once again in focus.
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