Montana metals in demand

A Texas-based mining company called U.S. Rare Earths is on the move in Montana. The company says it has found rich deposits of rare earth metals near the Lemhi Pass in southwest Montana, where exploratory drilling has proceeded at a rapid pace.

"This is the premier rare earth property in the country," says company CEO Kevin Cassidy.

The company holds mineral claims on 1,300 acres in the Beaverhead National Forest and another 11,000 acres on federal land in Idaho. Once it completes exploratory drilling, it plans to apply for mining permits and begin extraction of the minerals. It also wants to build a processing facility in the area.

"We intend to build a processing facility in the continental U.S.," says Cassidy. "We would like to do that in Montana or Idaho, and right now we are in the long process of figuring out who our dance partner is."

Rare earths consist of 17 different metals that are used to produce a wide-range of modern technology, from smart phones and fluorescent light bulbs to wind turbines and military equipment. China dominates the global trade in rare earth metals, with 85 percent of the market share, according to Karl Gschneidner Jr., a senior metallurgist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory. In recent years, politicians, including President Barack Obama, have called for more domestic exploration and production to reduce China's dominance.

But rare earth mining comes with a host of environmental risks. In its December 2012 Rare Earth Elements Review, the Environmental Protection Agency evaluates the environmental impacts of rare earth mining, from exploratory drilling to processing. According to the report, exploratory drilling produces both "solid wastes and fluids" and can "potentially disturb many acres of land." Underground and surface mining creates "piles of waste rock, ore and subgrade-ore stockpiles and sediment." And processing the rare earth metals once they are out of the ground leaves radioactive and otherwise toxic tailings that are a "major environmental risk."

As a result, environmentalists in Montana are beginning to pay attention to the emerging rare earths industry.

"The most significant environmental and public health risks stem from the radioactive elements like uranium and thorium often found in association with rare earth elements," says Bonnie Gestring, northwest representative for Earthworks. "Rare earth mining often generates radioactive mine waste and that can result in surface and groundwater contamination like it has at the Mountain Pass mine in California."

Before it can begin mining, U.S. Rare Earths will likely have to apply for permitting and undergo environmental review by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

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