Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The headwaters of the Bitterroot River is a bad place for a rare-earth element mine, according to a local mine-contamination expert.

On Monday, Philip Ramsey gave a presentation to the Ravalli County Commissioners on the proposed Sheep Creek Mine, where he explained its potential threats to the Bitterroot Valley and tried to cut through some of the mining company’s misinformation.

“The short story, in my mind, is it’s a bad place,” Ramsey said. “The kind of mining that rare-earth element mining is, it takes a ton of water. We don’t have a lot of water to spare here. We’ve been compromising and working together for decades just to keep this river flowing all the way through the county.”

The 7-square-mile Sheep Creek Columbite Deposit Mine site in question lies in the headwaters of the Bitterroot River, approximately 38 miles south of Darby and 20 miles southwest of Lost Trail Pass. Deposits of rare-earth metals were discovered in the area in 1953, and the site has been studied and sampled since the early 1960s.

In late January, U.S. Critical Materials Corp., a Canadian mining company, announced it had discovered “the highest-grade (rare-earth element) deposit in the United States” among its 223 mining claims near the confluence of Sheep Creek and the West Fork of the Bitterroot. Then in late May, the Bitterroot National Forest announced that U.S. Critical Materials and U.S. Critical Metals Corp. had sent a Notice of Intent that they would begin exploring for rare-earth elements on their Sheep Creek claim.

That raised concerns among a lot of Ravalli County residents. In mid-July, Friends of the Bitterroot along with other environmental groups held a well- attended public meeting in Hamilton that highlighted some of those concerns.

Ramsey, lead scientist and general manager of the MPG Ranch near Florence, presented similar information and his own take to the commissioners on Monday. Ramsey is well acquainted with mine hazards, having earned a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Montana after writing his dissertation on the relationship between mine-waste contamination and ecosystem function in the upper Clark Fork River Valley.

Ramsey showed a photo of the Mountain Pass Mine, an 1,100-acre open-pit operation in California’s Mojave Desert, and asked those at the meeting to imagine it gouged into the mountainsides near Sheep Creek. While such a mine does okay in a hot, dry area like the Mojave Desert, there would be several problems in the high, rugged country of the Bitterroot Mountains in winter, Ramsey said.

The waste - ore byproducts and surrounding rock containing arsenic, lead, fluorine and radioactive thorium - is often stored onsite. Sulfide ores produce acid mine drainage that must be dealt with forever. So the site has a huge pit, huge vats of toxic chemicals and miles of pressurized pipe containing hazardous materials. But evaporation ponds don’t work when it’s cold.

“Pipes break when it’s cold. You can’t have a house without a leaky pipe occasionally.

This mine in the ‘80s and ‘90s leaked 600,000 gallons of radioactive waste out into the Mojave Desert. A 600,000-gallon spill of radioactive waste into the West Fork is going to dramatically affect our lives,” Ramsey said.

The Mountain Pass Mine uses 285 million gallons of water a year - more than 850 acre-feet - to extract the ore. Even though the mine recycles a lot of it, Ramsey said that would be 285 million gallons a year that wouldn’t enter the Bitterroot River each year. The river already suffers from low flows even though it gets water from the Painted Rocks Reservoir.

“We’ve done so much work for this fishery. If the extra water that this mine will take out is not going to be flowing down the river anymore, this is a concern,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said the two main elements that would be mined at the Sheep Creek site are neodymuim and praseodymium, which are used to build magnets. But even though they’re called “rare-earth elements,” they aren’t rare, Ramsey said. They were only thought to be rare in the 18th century when they were discovered and named.

The elements sell for about $64 a pound - cheap compared to gold at $22,000 a pound - and the world already gets these elements from mines in China that are hard to compete against, Ramsey said.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Energy have recently been developing methods to extract rare-earth elements out of all the mine waste and acid-mine drainage that already exists in places like Butte, Ramsey said. A research team out of West Virginia University got a $3 million DOD grant in June to perfect methods to extract rare-earth elements from acid-mine drainage in Butte and West Virginia.

“There’s at least enough neodymium in the Berkeley Pit to make 120,000 Tesla batteries. If we need these elements, Montana has huge resources in these areas that are already sacrificed,” Ramsey said.

Sheridan Johnson called in to the meeting from Helena to say the Montana Chamber of Commerce supports the mine, but a handful of Ravalli County residents showed up to voice their concerns.

The commissioners were surprised to learn that U.S. Critical Materials Corp. wouldn’t have to pay any royalties if they mine their claims. But when resident Douglas Taylor asked if the commissioners would take a role in stopping the mine, they said there was probably little they could do.

“I don’t know that you stop a mining claim. You just make sure you put enough conditions and protections on it to make sure you protect the environment. And maybe with those conditions, they look at it and say it’s just too much cost, it’s not worth doing it. I’d say that’s a more reasonable way to do it than just signs that say ‘Stop the mine’” said Commissioner Jeff Burrows.

Resident Jim Parker said he led a group that opposed a coal mine proposed in the North Fork of the Flathead River before he moved to Ravalli County in 1983. They were ultimately successful once the businessmen and bankers figured out how devastating it would be if a settling pond breached and sent a bunch of coal sludge into Flathead Lake.

“We found ourselves in a situation similar to the group organizing here to oppose this mine. There were not a lot of politicians willing to stick their neck out,” Parker said. “What it took was the legislation that we passed. It slowed things down a lot.”

Following in Parker’s Flathead footsteps, Darby resident Kate Duggan said she was working with Ramsey and others to form an organization called “Protect the Bitterroot” to educate people not only about the mine but also policy. They’re concerned about a Congressional bill that could fast-track the mine if it passes.

“We’re just community citizens, and we’re trying to engage decision makers like you. And you all have wonderful influence with folks that have even greater influence in the state and Congress,” Duggan said. “We want time on our side, and we want to make sure that everyone knows what the impacts are, because not a lot of people know in this valley.”

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