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Mining company to explore Bitterroot rare-earth deposit

The date of: 2023-06-05
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A Nevada company that hopes to mine what it describes as the nation's richest deposit of rare-earth elements at the south end of the Bitterroot Mountains plans to conduct further exploration this year on its claims. 

U.S. Critical Materials and partner company U.S. Critical Metals filed a notice of intent (NOI) to conduct mineral exploration with the Bitterroot National Forest on April 24. The work includes soil sampling, stream sediment sampling, rock chip sampling from the surface, mapping and sampling of rock in existing tunnels, and ground and air-based magnetic and radiometric surveys. The work is proposed to be completed using hand tools and with vehicle access via existing roads. The companies performed similar work at the site last year. And in March, the U.S. Geological Survey selected the site and another area near Lemhi Pass southeast of Salmon, Idaho, for aerial mapping and magnetic and radiometric surveys this year. The site has been studied and sampled for mining since 1953.

U.S. Critical Materials Corp., a Nevada company with its main office in Salt Lake City, believes its 223 mining claims across 7 square miles in the Sheep Creek drainage of the Bitterroot National Forest contain 'at least 12 of the critical-risk elements as defined by the U.S. Geological Survey.' Key elements at the site are neodymium and praseodymium, according to the company. Both elements have a wide variety of uses, including in electric vehicles and in making exceptionally strong, tiny magnets inside electronics. The company envisions a mining operation on the site to be operational in about five years — with underground mining, open-pit mining or both — and ore processing nearby.

The deposit also contains lanthanum, cerium, europium, gallium, niobium, yttrium, scandium, dysprosium, strontium and gadolinium, according to the company. The elements are often found in conjunction with thorium, a radioactive element. U.S. Critical Materials states that there's not enough thorium at Sheep Creek to require permitting from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The site along Sheep Creek, a tributary to the West Fork Bitterroot River just north of the Idaho-Montana state line, sits about 13 miles south of Painted Rocks State Park and about 36 miles south of Darby. 

The continued exploration at Sheep Creek comes as the federal government is pushing to increase domestic production of elements that power the so-called 'green economy' of renewable energy and electric vehicles. U.S. Critical Materials touts the 9% total rare-earth oxide composition of the Sheep Creek deposit as the richest such deposit in the U.S. with a multibillion-dollar value.

Some local environmental groups and residents are wary of the environmental impacts of a mine. People concerned about the project have questioned how mining and ore processing will be conducted, and wondered whether the Sheep Creek deposit contains the same form of asbestos that killed hundreds of people in Libby and contaminated the landscape. Rare-earth mining typically involves excavation of ore-bearing earth followed by chemical leaching in on-site ponds, or by pumping leaching chemicals through pipes directly into the ore beds. 

Grizzly bear researcher and consultant Mike Bader and groups including Friends of the Bitterroot have expressed concern about the impacts of a mining operation amid overlapping conservation concerns. The Sheep Creek site sits at the headwaters of the West Fork Bitterroot River, which is critical habitat for endangered bull trout. The site is adjacent to the Bluejoint Wilderness Study Area and it partially overlaps the Allan Mountain Inventoried Roadless Area. And, they say, the location is critical for facilitating connectivity for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Bitterroot Ecosystem. 

Bader wrote in a March 23 guest column in the Missoulian that Sheep Creek is 'about the worst place for extensive mining operations.'

'The Bitterroot National Forest and USCMC must realize they will be held to the highest possible scrutiny on every aspect of this process,' he wrote. 'Fast-tracking is unacceptable, even for 'green energy' projects.'

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