Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) New technology requires minerals seldom used before, some of which can be found in Montana’s mine waste. But some appear eager to change Montana’s regulations that would oversee new mine development.

On Thursday, John Metesh, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology director, explained to the Legislative Environmental Quality Council what “critical commodities” are, where they could be found in Montana and what some small projects are already producing.

Critical commodities include about 35 metals or minerals that are needed for computer and electric vehicle manufacturing or high-tech military gear. Seventeen of those are rare-earth elements while others are “key minerals” and “strategic minerals.” The U.S. produces about 38,000 metric tons of rare-earth metals but lags behind other countries in the production of elements like lithium or cobalt.

“Globally, the oil economy is slowly shifting to a mineral economy. With oil, the supply isn’t going to peak; the demand for oil is going to peak, presumably in this decade. That means the mineral side is going to have to step up,” Metesh said.

In Montana, most of the critical mineral deposits are around Butte and west to the Idaho border with a few down near Red Lodge and up near the Fort Belknap Reservation. Rare-earth metal deposits exist along the western border in the Montana-Idaho Alkalic Belt and in the Central Montana Alkalic Province between the Crazy and Bears Paw mountains. Montana doesn’t have the right geology for much lithium, which is more concentrated in the younger rock around California and Nevada, Metesh said.

Although a Canadian mining company is exploring the rare-earth element potential near Sheep Creek in the headwaters of the Bitterroot River, new or “greenfield” mines aren’t currently needed, because researchers are finding that many critical commodities can be extracted from Montana’s existing copper, gold and coal mines.

“Everything we do in mining and mineral resources is going to generate waste. Abandoned inactive mines, fly ash, coal waste, phosphoria - there’s a lot of waste products from all of this. Those wastes show a lot of promise for being a secondary source for both critical minerals and rare-earth elements. So we’ve been funded by the Department of Defense to look at these large waste piles around the state and evaluate their concentration of these elements,” Metesh said.

For example, based on mineral “heat maps” compiled by the Bureau of Mines and Geology, Butte has two areas that could produce critical commodities: one near the Berkeley Pit and one to the west of town near the old Orphan Boy Mine. The Butte mines still contain and have already produced critical commodities such as bismuth, manganese, zinc and tellurium up until 1972, but at the time, they had no value.

“Those reserves are still there. They’re reachable through underground mining or open-pit mining. But they’re not counted in the big scheme of things because of Superfund and reclamation needs. But that’s one of those topics that we’re going to need to revisit,” Metesh said.

The Berkeley Pit contains some zinc, but it’s the sludge from the treatment plant east of the pit that’s getting people excited about rare-earth elements. For about a decade, the treatment plant focused on extracting copper and zinc from the Berkeley Pit and Horseshoe Bend water to allow it to be discharged to the Clark Fork River. But when they tested the sludge for minerals, they were stunned at what else they found.

“The concentration (of rare-earth elements) skyrockets due to the treatment process. That was not intentional. But four or five years ago, the University of West Virginia and our group exchanged data, and we started sending them sludge,” Metesh said. “It’s not an experiment so much as a design phase. Now it’s a matter of designing the second part of this treatment system to capture this.”

Sen. Jon Tester and Joe Manchion, D-W.V., provided funding for the joint effort.

The mineral extraction can be difficult but processing is also a challenge. Chris Dorrington, Department of Environmental Quality director, said China is responsible for 90-95% of all rare-earth element processing.

One benefit of going after mine waste is that some of the projects could require less of a permitting process because they would occur in areas that have already been disturbed by mining activities. However Dorrington said each had to be considered on a case-by-case basis depending on each site’s conditions.

For example, removing slag from existing piles such as those in Anaconda wouldn’t be considered mining, but extracting copper from water would be covered by mining regulations.

A few of the committee members asked whether the permitting process for new mines could be shortened to open the way for more mines.

Dorrington urged the committee to understand that the mining regulations provide important protections. Last week, he got a glimpse of what could happen otherwise when he hosted a representative from the People’s Republic of Congo, which has huge mines but no environmental protections.

“It is atrocious what that nation is doing, a mineral-rich nation with no environmental regulation whatsoever. The impact to human health - there is no safe drinking water as a result of mining activity that is unregulated,” Dorrington said. “So I press us to look at what is important to Montana, which is a balance of allowing these minerals to be extracted and the environmental protections that I think we need so we’re not impacting Montana’s resources, groundwater especially.”

Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, noted that the Bureau of Mines map showed potential rare-earth element deposits under Mineral and Sanders counties, but the U.S. Forest Service owns much of the land so he anticipated regulatory hurdles. Metesh said discussions about that are occurring at the federal level as part of possible reformation of the 1872 Mining Act.

“We’ve got a lot of government regulations that seem to be the 3-foot speed bump,” Fielder said. “We won World War II in less than three years and nine months, but we can’t get a mining permit in less time than we won a world war. I know that Mr. Dorrington is following all the regulations we have in place. But we’re talking about strategic minerals that are needed by the military; we’re talking about critical minerals that we’re depending on other countries that are not going to be our friends in the future. We’ve got to figure out a way to speed up the process.”

Matt Vincent of the Montana Mining Association said Congress has recognized that streamlined permitting is needed to meet the nation’s demands for energy transition, technology and national defense. That’s what led to the current efforts to reform the 1872 Mining Act, although mining companies don’t like some of the changes.

“We gotta find that balance and work better to put our actions behind the words that are going to get us what we need in terms of a stable mineral supply chain,” Vincent said. “The Anaconda Company for all its faults had a good marketing slogan, 'From mine to consumer.” They mined the ore in Butte, they smelted it in Anaconda and they refined it into all the products in Great Falls. It was a time when there was very little environmental regulation, but we really need to come up with an Anaconda Company two-point-oh with 21st Century environmental regulations.”

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