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Delegates push incentives to treat mine runoff and extract rare earth elements

The date of: 2022-01-28
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The Legislature is considering bills to promote West Virginia production of the rare earth elements that are essential parts of high-tech devices.

The House Energy and Manufacturing Committee passed two related bills Thursday afternoon. They’ll now be considered by the House Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 4003 is meant to encourage exploration and capitalization of West Virginia’s potential for recovering valuable rare earth elements and other critical materials from mine drainage.

Evan Hansen

“The problem of pollutant mine drainage is a big deal. It’s a big deal in my district,” said Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia. “Any time we can do something that transforms the waste product into an asset, I think that’s a win for everybody.”

Rare earth elements are a key component of electronics, aerospace, automotive and other products, particularly rechargeable batteries. China is the dominant producer, and the rest of the world is trying to catch up.

West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute found that treating one of the biggest sources of pollution in the United States, acid mine drainage, is a rich source of rare earth elements.

“We found that rare earth elements concentrations in abandoned  treatment solids exceed many of the world’s best

commercial deposits,” Paul Ziemkiewicz, the institute’s director, testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2019.

“In the near future the AMD treatment systems at both operating and former mine sites could be managed as rare earth production facilities, recovering rare earths from ongoing AMD production and from sludge stored in dewatering cells.”

Ziemkiewicz described similar opportunities while speaking to state legislators last fall during interim meetings.

The House bill is also meant to provide an incentive for treating mine drainage. It does so by attempting to establish clear legal right to title of chemical compounds, elements, and substances that are derived from the treatment of acid mine drainage on mined lands.

The right to make such claims would be available for those possessing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, which are for treating wastewater.

“In order to encourage the treatment of acid mine drainage, the State of West Virginia determines that all chemical compounds, elements, and other materials of value derived from the byproducts of acid mine drainage treatment may, at the discretion of the treating party, be used by the treating party or its designee for its commercial benefit,” the original bill states.

The bill states the Department of Environmental Protection may promulgate rules to carry out the Legislature’s vision.

The House Energy Committee considered a substitute bill that was significantly rewritten from what was originally introduced, although the same intent was intended. One change, for example, was to change “acid mine drainage” simply to the broader mine drainage.

Another bill, House Bill 4025, provides another incentive: an exemption from severance tax for a maximum five years for extracting, producing and selling rare earth elements and other critical materials.

Those include scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium and other resources.

The elements may be used in the production of metals such as lithium, cobalt, manganese, indium, tellurium, gallium, and platinum group elements.

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