THE PUSH TO DIG UP RARE EARTH MATERIALS IN THE BLACK HILLS: The demand for critical raw materials imperils the environment and the communities that live near the Devil's Tower in Wyoming.

Tatyana Novikova*

Republished from Foreign Policy in Focus ( FPIC) November 13, 2023,

Bear Lodge Mountain, Devil's Tower, and the entire Northern Black Hills in Wyoming may soon shift from being a center of tourism and Native culture to mining and the industrial production of rare earth elements (REE). The Bear Lodge mining project, which had been shelved for almost a decade, is in the process of being revitalized because of the increasing demand for REE.

A Canadian firm, Rare Earth Resources, has begun a demonstration plant near Upton, WY, to prove a new critical mineral extraction technology. If successful, it could pave the way for commercial REE mining in the Northern Black Hills.

While REE are associated with clean energy, will industrial mining and extraction be environmentally clean enough for the sensitive, unique ecosystem of that region and the local communities that live there?

Corporate Plans

The Black Hills National Forest straddles two states, South Dakota and Wyoming. The 100,000 acres of the Northern Black Hills in Wyoming contain the famous Devils Tower, a huge stone formation that attracts rock climbers from around the world. About 15 miles southeast of this natural monument, the Wyoming affiliate of Canadian Rare Earth Elements wants to establish the large-scale commercial mining of rare earth materials.

In November, the company announced that it would build an essential part of its planned complex, an experimental hydrometallurgical plant in Upton. As the company's CEO commented in early October, the paperwork with the Department of Energy needs just one more signature. The plant would process a 1,000-ton ore sample already mined from the Bear Lodge site. In addition to a plant for rare earth oxide extraction, the complex would include a physical upgrade plant, a water reclamation facility, open pit mines, and sediment ponds near Bull Hill.

The company is counting on the support of Wyoming to move forward with the Bear Lodge project because it refers to it as a "mining-friendly state with a good infrastructure with low-cost power and a ready workforce." The company also expects that its new technology will successfully extract 10 rare earth minerals, including neodymium, praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, and gadolinium. Two independent laboratory tests in Germany confirmed the feasibility of this extraction.

The people who live in the area as well as the visitors who flock to the region do not necessarily share the company's optimism. The locals have different uses for the landscape and what lies beneath, including fresh water. The Bear Lodge site is now used for logging, grazing, farming, hunting, camping, and other activities. According to the U.S. National Park Service, more than 20 Northern Plains tribes have cultural affiliations with Devils Tower and its environs and use the site to fast, pray, and worship. If permitted, the mine and the physical upgrade plant will pump some 74 gallons of local drinking water per minute for rock crushing and screening. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the demonstration hydrometallurgical plant would use 1-5 gallons per minute of Upton municipal water seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Unfrozen Project

The Bear Lodge project has long been controversial. The Canadian company began the approval process almost a decade ago. At that time, the project included all the same core elements at both the mining site near Bull Hill and the Upton site, although some minor changes were made. In mid-January 2016, the public was invited to comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. However, by the end of January 2016, without waiting for the completion of the public comment period, the company suspended the regulatory process. The company's attorney characterized the continuation of the hearing process as a "costly and unnecessary use of the resources."

The suspension might have resulted from other factors. During the regulatory process, the U.S. Forest Service invited the company to identify alternatives that could mitigate some of the major adverse environmental impacts of the project. The Forest Service was concerned that the company, in establishing a commercial open-pit mine on the headwaters of major rivers, would divert the surface water, dig new channels, plug springs and carry out mining operations that could alter water balance and quality. Another obstacle was the response from indigenous people opposed to mining at a sacred site.

This year, Rare Earth Resources began to actively revive the project under the label of a unique hydrometallurgical experiment to extract rare earth materials with fewer steps and less waste. According to its CEO Brent Berg, it will be done on a demonstration scale for the first time in the world. Perhaps that's why he characterized it as a $44 million bet, half of which is paid by the Department of Energy. The company plans to finance the other part by selling shares.

At the end of July, the NRC issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the Upton Plant project. This happened despite Berg's estimate that REE mining and processing is "much more challenging than perhaps other mineral commodities." FONSI concerns mainly the radiological impacts of the Upton Plant associated with hazardous radionuclides–thorium, radium, and radon–that are by-products of the process. At the same time, the NRC's assessment makes only general comments about the environmental and public health impacts and mitigating measures, saying nothing about the specifics of technological means and sometimes referring to applying "the best available technology."

Proper Consideration?

The Bear Lodge project is still a long way off because all National Environmental Policy Act processes will have to be restarted, even if the pilot project at the demonstration plant is successful. Despite the NRC conclusion of no significant impacts, the Upton plant will likely release radioactive materials, for instance radon during ore processing. The company promises to reduce the amount via filters, scrubbers, and dust control. According to physics professor Andrew Johnson of Spearfish, SD, this will alleviate the amount of radioactive gas released, but it will be difficult to eliminate all the airborne radon. He notes that it is important for the public to know "what amounts will be released, what effects it will have on people and ecosystems downwind, and what monitoring systems will be in place."

A pilot project, meanwhile, is easier to portray as environmentally harmless because of its lower scale. Commercial mining and production–which will follow the same processes as the pilot project–would have more significant and dire consequences for the environment, including radioactivity.

Julie Santella, a grassroots activist from South Dakota's Southern Black Hills, believes that because "the proposed plant in Upton sits in both the Cheyenne and Belle Fourche River watersheds", the radioactive contamination, caused by byproducts of the extraction process "would impact two major and important water systems for the Black Hills."

In 2016, the Forest Service identified, among other things, that the Bear Lodge project is associated with possible environmental impacts on stream channels, in-stream flows, and water quality. It could also have an impact on cultural resources determined to be "at risk" and public safety related to exposure to radioactive or hazardous elements from dust or ingesting meat or contaminants in water.

Indigenous peoples, who will be the most disadvantaged by the project, have said "no" even before the return of Rare Earth Resources. Santella is concerned that the decision-makers do not have consent from the people and nations to move forward with this project, which is a violation of the Laramie treaties and a violation of UN agreements protecting Indigenous people's right of free, prior, and informed consent for any projects that impact their lands, waters, and well-being. She doesn't believe that the appropriate communities were consulted before the issuance of the FONSI.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, according to the Native Sun News, is "adamantly opposed" to this project as well as to any "exploration, drilling, fracking, or mineral extraction from within the ancestral homeland of the Lakota Nation" where the current project is located.

The Black Hills Clean Water Alliance states that people in the Black Hills don't want new mining or toxic sites and will continue to oppose them.

*Tatyana Novikova reports on issues of nuclear power and sustainable energy in the United States, Russia, Belarus, and the EU.