By Sarah Pridgeon
As winter draws in, Rare Element Resources prepares to enter the season clutching a host of positive results, both for the Bear Lodge rare earth mining project itself and the peripheral community issues that the company has supported over the year. Poised to begin the project’s definitive feasibility study at the beginning of 2013, progress over the year has shed light on how the mine will eventually operate.
The overall goal for 2012 was to expand and upgrade the Bull Hill and Whitetail sites, investigating how well the mine is likely to perform. This was achieved by drilling for more ore samples, from more closely situated locations, to build a clearer picture of how the rare earth elements are distributed around the site.
Along the way, additional heavy rare earth elements were discovered, a pleasant surprise that increases the project’s viability because, according to Jim Clark, Vice President of Exploration, heavy rare earth elements are currently the more valuable commodity, with more applications in industry and the military.
“It was a good surprise to find the additional heavy rare earths,” agrees Linda Tokarczyk, Manager of Community Relations. “We hadn’t seen them in this higher grade last year and they help to make this much more of an economically sound deposit.”
RER has been a consistent presence in the community over the year, making efforts to contribute to fundraising and other local needs. “RER is a member of the area chambers of commerce in Crook and Weston counties and has actively helped support more than thirty events and community causes over the past year. RER recognizes the importance of the local communities and is striving to assist in efforts that are meaningful to local residents,” says Tokarczyk.
Further afield, the company has shown its determination to nurture the next generation of geologists, supporting students as they advance the research and development of rare earth elements. “These very capable students from around the United States and Canada have been a major source of high-level geological and other scientific work that has significantly advanced this project,” says Clark.
The students in question were or are currently enrolled at various universities, including the Colorado School of Mines, Washington State University, Texas Tech University, the University of Wyoming, University of Manitoba, University of Arkansas, and the University of Toronto.
“The Company is committed to supporting students at US colleges and universities that are pursuing the research and development of critical materials in this country. We are excited to be able to support this important work at Montana Tech and other educational institutions,” says Jaye Pickarts, CEO.
As winter draws in and access to the mine site is cut off for the drilling crews, the geological team is preparing to analyze the ore that was collected over the summer. Work is also being done to develop databases to store the constant flow of information about the ore being drilled, while computer imaging now allows RER’s geologists to see 3D models of the mine site and the rare earths concealed within.
The geology team is also embroiled in testing the retrieved ore using forensic mineralogy, a tool that decreases losses when recovering rare earth elements. This will further enhance the viability of the project by increasing the percentage of rare earth elements that can be extracted from the ore.
Next year, RER plans to keep advancing its drilling and exploration, at the same time conducting another release of its pilot plant testing. Reviewing the data from the pilot plant, the company believes additional testing is needed to tell how well the ore body will perform, and that more work is needed to maximize the amount of rare earth element that can be recovered from the ore.
Work will also continue on the various permitting processes required for the mine project to go ahead. “A lot depends on the next couple of months and what studies of the ore that we’ve sampled show,” says Tokarczyk.
For the next four to five weeks, RER will finalize its plan of operation for the Forest Service to initiate the NEPA process that will study the potential environmental impact of the mine.
“As the main management agency involved with the project, the Forest Service needs to know information such as the mine’s placement and size, the amount to be taken from it, the proposed access route and the socio-economic and environmental impacts being considered,” explains Tokarczyk. “It’s a comprehensive document.”
“There will be at least three public comment periods during the process of putting together the environmental document,” she adds. “During the scoping period, when the draft document is prepared and then again when the final draft is ready.”
The process ends with issuance of a record of decision, expected to take at least 18 months. RER is meanwhile gathering the baseline environmental data needed to request a 19-year permit to mine from the Department of Environmental Quality, monitoring ground and surface water and air quality.
“DEQ will also look at industrial siting, as the project is over the $186.1 million threshold,” says Tokarczyk. “This will look at the community impact of the mine.”
“We are pleased with the progress of our technical work necessary to advance our process and introduce efficiencies that will be incorporated in the feasibility study,” says Jaye Pickarts, CEO. “To that end, we are working on numerous studies to optimize our development plan. Our goal is to implement the most efficient, effective and environmentally sound process to concentrate the rare earth elements found at Bear Lodge and the surrounding target areas.”
This process will include work to improve access routes for timber interests, identify options for current grazing permit holders and develop alternative access for recreational purposes. RER’s major consideration for traffic is safety, while work will also be done to minimize the environmental impact and control dust, noise and speed.
As work continues, a clearer picture of how the mine will look and operate comes into view. “Right now, we’re looking at a maximum of approximately 2000 by 3000 feet, with a depth of 400 feet,” says Mike Finn, Manager of Community Relations for Weston County, explaining that the actual size of the mine will be finalized through the permitting process.
Six to eight trucks are expected to travel between Sundance and Upton per day, while the railroad will eventually be used to ship supplies in and product out of the hydrometallurgy plant. Miller Creek is currently the preferred access route and, as Tokarczyk explains, the company readily accepts responsibility for maintaining and upgrading the road for safety, both for residents and employees.
“The hydromet plant will be on private land in Upton, which we’re leasing right now to monitor the air and water quality,” Finn continues. “The pond will be double-sealed and built to withstand a 100-year storm, engineered to the best standards possible.”
Finn also notes that the company will not let dust blow around as a result of the project. “For one thing, the product is in a moist state – and, for another, it’s too valuable to let it blow away!”
The town of Upton and its council have been very supportive of the plant, Finn goes on. “They’re looking forward to what it will bring to the town. We’re down to 64 kids in high school, Upton needs the shot in the arm. The plant’s in a good location, too – it’s not scenically desirable and it’s close to the industrial park, which is booming.”
Once the mine is up and running, RER expects to have created 159 new jobs in the area, distributed between the mine site, plants and administrative office. Up to 50 additional regional and local contract support services will also be available.
“These will be professional people, which we’re very excited about because it will encourage our young people to consider different professions, expanding their opportunities,” says Tokarczyk.
RER also expects to contribute around $25 million per year in property, severance and ad valorem taxes, on top of the $61.8 million operating cost to be spent on local labor and regional supplies. “We’ve spent around $42 million so far, actually!” says Tokarczyk.
The Bear Lodge property has so far shown itself to be the second highest grade deposit in North America, with a good distribution of the “Big Five” rare earth elements. One of the four best non-Chinese deposits in the world, it has favorable metallurgy, a dependable infrastructure and a skilled workforce already available, attributes that increase the probability that Sundance will soon be home to the West’s newest rare earth mine.