Environment

Native Sun News: Rosebud Sioux Tribe fights Devil's Tower mine





The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, the health and environment editor for Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

To contemporary music lovers, Rare Earth is a Motown band famous for soulful 1970s pop rock hits, such as “I Just Want to Celebrate” and “Midnight Lady.” But to Don Ranta, George G. Byers, and other mining industry representatives, it is also well-known as a very different kind of rock group.

Rare earth is the name used to describe a spectrum of 17 obscure metals crucial for making components of high-technology and green energy inventions, including many of modern society’s favorite things, such as cell phones, lap top computers, wind turbines, lasers, electric cars, stadium lights, and missile guidance systems.

Ranta and Byers are key managers at Rare Element Resources Ltd., a Canadian mining interest that aims to provide these raw materials from its Bear Lodge Project site 15 miles southeast of Wyoming’s Devils Tower in the Black Hills National Forest.

Ranta, the corporate president and CEO, signaled the ramping up of activities on Feb. 16, by announcing Byers’ appointment to the post of vice president for Government and Community Relations. The assignment is meant to foster support for proposed open-pit strip mining at Bull Hill in the Bear Lodge Mountains 12 miles northwest of Sundance, Wyoming.

“George is a solid strategic addition as we continue building our project development team for the Bear Lodge Project,” Ranta said in a written release. “His background in Wyoming plus his experience and proven ability to educate and build community and government acceptance for important natural resources projects will help us immensely as we move Bear Lodge … into construction and production of rare-earth elements.”

Byers has his work cut out for him, given that the project’s location in the Bearlodge Ranger District of the Black Hills near Devils Tower is the heart of territory extremely sensitive to the Lakota and other Native Americans across the Northern Plains due to its historical cultural uses.

“The Rosebud Sioux Tribe is adamantly opposed to any exploration, drilling, fracking, or extraction of uranium, rare earth and other resources from within the ancestral homelands of the Lakota Nation where the current project is located,” Rosebud Historic Preservation Officer Russell Eagle Bear told the Native Sun News.

Prospects High for Prospecting
The company would like to conduct a pilot test of an on-site processing plant in 2011, as part of a development timeline that began with exploratory drilling back in 2004. The schedule calls for a series of feasibility reports leading to production in 2015, according to a November scoping study by the Denver-based technical consultant John T. Boyd Co.

The study says the company’s 200-acre area under mineral exploration permit “hosts one of the largest low-grade rare-earth element (REE) deposits in North America”, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The company’s February 2011 Corporate Presentation explains to investors the economic prospects for this deposit, as well as the “significant” high-grade REE at the Bear Lodge Project and the associated gold mining opportunities of the so-called Sundance Project, both at the Bull Hill site.

China currently produces more than 95 percent of the world’s REE, also known as rare earth metals, or REM. Chinese mines are operating at near capacity. In January, following a trend of reducing annual exports, China imposed a new 35-percent cut, and it might become an importer within five years. Most production plans elsewhere lag behind those at the Bear Lodge Project.

Rare Element Resources Ltd. admits to facing several “challenges” in its development plans. These include the heavy overburden of turf at the mine site, as well as land-use competition from active ranching and timbering interests in the area, which is in Cook County.

Among environmental challenges, the company addresses those of radioactive thorium by-product in rare earth.

Water is listed under “other important considerations,” in the consultant’s economic assessment. “Ground water is the most likely large water source near the Bear Lodge Project. The Minnelusa and Madison aquifers … may be able to supply several hundred gallons per minute for the project,” the consultant notes.

“Both the Minnelusa and Madison aquifers are five or more miles from the project site. Additionally, these water sources are currently utilized for domestic water supply for nearby populations,” it says.

Rare Earth Extraction at Odds with Mother Earth Protection?
“The U.S. Forest Service and the Wyoming State Historical Preservation Office have noted that the Sundance project area contains a limited number of cultural resources that are either ’eligible or potentially eligible’ for the National Register of Historic Places,” the assessment continues.

Parts of the project area have not been surveyed yet for cultural resources, the consultant adds, promising, “As exploration activities proceed, site reviews would be completed on the planned surface disturbance to ensure that any eligible or unevaluated cultural resources are avoided.”

It concludes: “Presently, there are no known significant social, political, or environmental issues related to the property that would adversely affect exploration, development, or production.”

Eagle Bear warned that the federal and state governments will be held responsible if the laws protecting American Indian religious, cultural and historic rights are not followed in the mining development process.

“Lack of cultural sensitivity and surveying of those areas for cultural resources that may be present and impacted by this type of activity is unwarranted and demonstrates negligence on behalf of the Forest Service and the State of Wyoming,” he said.

More than 20 Northern Plains tribes have cultural affiliation to Devils Tower and its environs, according to historical documentation collected by the U.S. National Park Service, which has been in charge of protecting the Native American sacred site since President Theodore Roosevelt declared the 1,267-foot volcanic rock monolith the country’s first national monument in 1906.

The unique geological formation gave rise to many significant stories and sacred narratives. According to the Crow tale of Devils Tower’s formation, a large bear almost cornered some small girls at play while their families were camped. The girls climbed on a rock to escape. The Great Spirit, seeing that they were in danger, caused the rock to grow out of the ground, lifting the girls with it. The bear clawed the rock in its attempt to catch them, which left the deep fissures visible along the mountains’ sides.

In the Lakota tradition, the tower and the surrounding area are designated as a place to fast, pray, and worship Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. They are a holy land used for personal and group rituals for healing and spiritual guidance.

Tribes officially listed with historical and geographical ties to the Devils Tower area include: Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Lakota and Shoshone.

In native languages, many of the names for the striking formation refer to a bear’s lodge, according to the park service. It is known by the Arapaho as “Bear’s Tipi,” by the Cheyenne as Na Kovehe or “Bear’s Lodge,” by the Kiowa as Tso-i-e, or “Standing on a Rock,” by the Lakota as Mato Tipila or “Bear Lodge,” and by the Eastern Shoshone as “Bear’s House”.

The tower plays a role in the their cultures as well as in those of the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Dakota, Kootenai & Salish, Three Affiliated Tribes, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa.

Mining Plays Cultural Role
Recent history places the Bear Lodge squarely at the heart of a booming mining culture, too. The Bear Lodge Project is 60 miles from Gillette, Wyoming, the coal mining capital of the Powder River Basin and a center of Canadian as well as other foreign extractive activities.

Rare Element Resources Ltd. notes that the Fraser Institute ranks Wyoming among the top locations worldwide for its favorable mining investment climate. The institute, a Canadian public policy research and educational firm, has been evaluating the best and worst jurisdictions for mining ventures since 1997. Its criteria include reliability of government policies, taxation, environmental and other regulations, infrastructure, political stability, labor issues, and uncertainty about Native land claims, security, and the geological database.

President and CEO Ranta’s history includes a doctoral degree, as well as 35 years’ experience in mining and corporate administration, exploration and project evaluation at big-name outfits such as Echo Bay, Phelps Dodge, AMAX and Kennecott.

Byers is also a 35-year mining and energy industry veteran. He has held executive positions in the uranium industry with the Canadian Cameco Corp.’s U.S. uranium production unit, which operates in Wyoming and Nebraska.

He served as vice president of the coal mining unit of Public Service Co. of New Mexico, and as vice president of public affairs and communications for Santa Fe Pacific Gold, which was later acquired by Newmont Mining Co., the same interest that held the exploration permit at Bear Lodge Project before selling out to Rare Element Resources Ltd.

At Louisiana Energy Services he successfully built a case for New Mexico construction of the first commercial U.S. gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility. Before taking the position at Rare Element Resources, he was working at Neutron Energy Inc., a privately held uranium development company in New Mexico and Wyoming.

Rare Element Resources currently is focusing on exploration of high-grade deposits. Its goal is extraction of some of the most widely used REE, such as cerium and lanthanum, as well as some of the more valuable REE, including neodymium and praseodymium, plus important quantities of europium, dysprosium, and terbium.

Other past REE exploration has been done for these by Duval, Molycorp, and Hecla. But all the REE occurrences in the Bear Lodge area now are controlled by Rare Element Resources’ claims.

Demand Dictates Investor Outlook
Rare earth elements are considered to be an unusual group of metals with unique chemical, catalytic, magnetic, metallurgical and phosphorescent qualities.

The 17 rare earth elements on the periodic table, together with their common commercial uses, are: scandium for stadium lights; yttrium for lasers; lanthanum for electric car batteries, cerium for ens polishes, praseodymium for searchlights and aircraft parts, promethium for portable x-ray units, samarium for synthetic glass, europium for compact fluorescent bulbs, gadolinium for neutron radiography, holmium for glass tint, erbium for metal alloys, thulium for lasers, ytterbium for stainless steel; dysprosium, neodymium, and terbium for high-strength magnets, and lutetium (no commercial use).

Their applications include weight reduction in cars, higher oil refinery yields, hybrid vehicles, and catalytic converters on automobiles, diesel additives, disk drives, digital cameras, and flat panel displays.

The price of neodymium, a barometer of the rare earth market, plummeted 50 percent over the last two years, while most other rare earths dropped 20 to 30 percent. The downturn was due to uncharacteristically “catastrophic” economic conditions, according to stock analysts.

But as long as high-technology gadgets remain in demand, so will Bull Hill REE production, according to stock analysts.

One advantage of the Bear Lodge Project is that its competition is limited. Few significant non-Chinese REE supply sources are available. Production in Russia, India, and Canada is low. Only two other REE development projects are at very advanced stages, with production possible by the end of the year: Molycorp’s renewed operation at Mountain Pass in California and Lynas Corp.’s Mt. Weld in Western Australia.

About a dozen other new projects are at early development stages and likely will experience long lead times to production due to technical, economic, and environmental hurdles, according to Rare Element Resources.

Meanwhile the gold at the company’s Sundance Project at Bull Hill could lure investors with the promise of opportunity for income from a not-so-rare metal.

(Talli Nauman is co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness. Contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

Join the Conversation