Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) After a new mining company recently announced that it intends to develop a rare-earth metals mine in the headwaters of the Bitterroot River, the Bitterroot National Forest issued a statement saying it hadn’t received a mining application from the company.

At the end of January, U.S. Critical Materials Corp. 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.

Samples showed the deposit contains 9% total rare-earth oxides, a notably high percentage.

After having its analysis confirmed by a Canadian laboratory, the company called the discovery a “multibillion-dollar resource value,” according to the Jan. 31 release.

The 7-square-mile Sheep Creek Columbite Deposit Mine Site lies in the headwaters of the Bitterroot River, approximately 38 miles south of Darby. Deposits were discovered in the area in 1953, and the site has been studied and sampled since the early 1960s.

On Wednesday, Dan Pliley, West Fork District Ranger, released a statement regarding rare earth element exploration in the Sheep Creek area.

“The Bitterroot National Forest has not received a draft Plan of Operations for any exploration drilling or a proposal to develop a mine in the Sheep Creek Area. If the Forest Service receives a plan, we will review the plan, and if warranted, will take the proposal through the National Environmental Policy Act process. The NEPA process would include the opportunity for public notification and comment and ensure compliance with applicable environmental laws and regulations before moving forward with the project,” Pliley wrote.

Last October, U.S. Critical Materials Corp. and U.S. Critical Metals Corp. submitted a Notice of Intent to the Bitterroot National Forest to conduct exploration activities within their Sheep Creek claims using hand tools and geologic mapping.

The Notice was approved for the 2022 field season. But the Forest Service has not yet received a proposal to conduct exploration in 2023, according to the Bitterroot Forest release.

Prior to conducting any exploratory drilling, the companies would also need to obtain an Exploration License from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The employees of U.S. Critical Materials Corp. are so excited, because in the U.S., only the giant Mountain Pass open-pit mine in California’s Mojave Desert produces rare earth elements, accounting for 16% of the world’s production.

China does the majority of the planet’s rare earth element mining. However, this year, USA Rare Earth LLC is projected to begin mining 950 acres of state land in Sierra Blanca, Texas, and MP Materials recently announced construction of a rare-earth metal, alloy and magnet manufacturing facility in Texas.

“Rare earth elements,” 17 elements of the periodic table, are all heavy metals that have various electronic and magnetic properties that make them useful in an ever-expanding array of electronic components, magnetic materials, lasers, industrial processes and, particularly, rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles.

While the need for rare-earth elements is growing, production is a problem. Efforts to recycle e-waste are advancing, and recovering minerals from coal ash and mine waste can reduce the need for new mining. But both methods are still being developed.

Mining for rare earth minerals can produce more, but it generates large volumes of toxic and radioactive material, due to the co-extraction of thorium and uranium, which can pose threats to the environment and human health. And extraction uses one of two methods: drilling or open-pit mining.

This is what bothers many Montanans about potentially having a large mine - potentially an open-pit mine - in the headwaters of the Bitterroot River. Montana Trout Unlimited and the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers have both expressed concern. Corey Fisher, Montana Trout Unlimited Public Lands Policy Director recently told Field & Stream that the organization would be very engaged in any public process.

As is the case with many mining companies, U.S. Critical Materials Corp. was created two years ago specifically for the Sheep Creek project, as were two other companies, U.S. Rare Elements Corp. and U.S. Energy Metals Corp.

According to a July 27, 2022, EIN Presswire story, U.S. Energy Metals Corp., a subsidiary of U.S. Critical Metals Corp., entered into an agreement with U.S. Critical Materials Corp. to invest up to $10 million in developing Sheep Creek.

U.S. Critical Materials Corp. was incorporated in Nevada on April 20, 2021, and U.S. Energy Metals Corp. was incorporated in Nevada three months later.

Nevada is a popular place to incorporate because it has no corporate or personal income tax and doesn’t require directors or officers to be residents of Nevada.

Then, a Dec. 8, 2022, Darik News story reported that U.S. Critical Metals Corp. and U.S Critical Materials Corp. had hired James Hedrick to be president of yet another joint venture to advance the Sheep Creek project. The U.S. Rare Elements Corp., incorporated in Nevada in July 2022 as its domestic state and August 2022 in Utah as its filing state.

Ultimately, all three companies point back toward the U.S. Critical Metals Corp., which was incorporated in July 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, by Darren Collins. Collins is also the president of the U.S. Energy Metals Corp. and is the other contact for the U.S. Rare Elements Corp. along with Hedrick.

US Critical Metal Corp.’s assets consist of four agreements, each providing the right to acquire interests in five projects, including the Clayton Ridge Lithium Project in Nevada, the Sheep Creek Rare Earth Project in Montana, and the Haynes Cobalt, the Long Canyon Uranium and the Lemhi Pass Rare Earth projects in Idaho.

MiningTechnology.com found that the world’s leading mining companies operate an average 95.5 subsidiaries each. Subsidiaries allow companies to more easily expand into new markets, to increase revenue, and to diversify their holdings to better manage risk.

But in some cases, they also allow the parent company to avoid environmental and retiree liabilities when an underfunded subsidiary declares bankruptcy and dissolves at the end of the project, according to a 2019 Cornell Law School analysis of coal company tactics.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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