Bear Lodge/Rare Element Resources (RER)
Rare Element Resources (RER) has been actively exploring for rare earth elements in the Bear Lodge mountains of the western Black Hills, north of Sundance, WY, since at least 2004. As of 2016, RER decided to suspend all permitting and licensing efforts to mine at Bear Lodge with the Forest Service and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Keeping track of the Bear Lodge/Bull Hill Mine Project remains important, as RER could revive their disastrous plans to mine at any time.
The company has now turned their attention to a proposed demonstration rare earths processing plant in Upton, WY, for which the company was awarded nearly $22 million in 2021 from the US Department of Energy.
The proposed mining area features outcrops of both the Madison and Minnelusa aquifers, which are used extensively throughout the Black Hills. Recharge to these aquifers occurs where streams cross the outcrop areas, meaning that this proposed mining area is precisely where there are direct connections and intermixing between surface water (streams and creeks) and groundwater (aquifers). Surface waters in the proposed mining area include Beaver Creek, Cow Creek, Whitelaw Creek, Lytle Creek, and other small tributaries of these creeks. These all feed into the Belle Fourche River, which circles the Black Hills to the north, and into the Cheyenne River, which circles the Black Hills to the south.
The proposed project area lies approximately 6 miles north of Sundance, WY, and 13 miles southeast from Mato Tipila, or Devils Tower, on mostly Black Hills National Forest land. This area hosts deposits of lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, europium, terbium, dysprosium, and yttrium. The geology of this area is similar to Mountain Pass in California and Bayan Obo in northern China and features high concentrations of radioactive thorium. RER claims that acid mine drainage should not be an issue, because a natural buffer exists in the carbonatite to separate the zone they plan to mine from the sulfide rich zone (high sulfide concentration is what leads to toxic acid mine drainage). RER representatives claim that once they come within 30 feet of the sulfide rich zone, they will stop digging.
Check out the two photos below that shows a comparison of what destructive mining can do to the land and water.
Approximately a half mile south of the proposed mineable pit, near Warren Peak, is the Sundance PM-1 nuclear reactor site. This nuclear reactor was decommissioned in 1968-69, and the Air Force has since removed contaminated soil, liquid, and the reactor itself, leaving pipes, tanks, and other physical debris. The Air Force maintains a half mile buffer zone around the site, prohibiting mining and blasting. Ellsworth Air Force personnel have stated that the Warren Peak area has a very high background level of radioactivity, which mining activities would certainly disturb.
As of 2016 when RER suspended their permitting and licensing process for this project, they were planning to mine 350,000 tons of ore each year, which would culminate in 8.75 million tons of ore over 25 years. Processing would continue for at least another 15 years after mining would cease. The company stated they would mine at a ratio of 6-7 to 1 for waste material, meaning that for every ton of ore they mine, they would produce 6-7 tons of waste material. This means that over the life of the proposed mine, RER would produce at least 38-44 million tons of waste material.
RER proposed an open-pit operation featuring a 500-foot-deep, 3000-foot-long, 2000-foot-wide pit, with a total disturbance of 3000 acres. This would include the mineable pit, a physical upgrade plant (where crushing, screening, and gravity separation would occur), and a waste rock facility, with a final capacity of 124 million tons of waste rock. The proposed mine is approximately 1700 acres, 1060 acres of National Forest and 640 acres of private land. RER planned to locate their waste rock facility on 426 acres of private land. The mine area would be visible from Mato Tipila.
Surface water and groundwater threatened
RER’s proposal would threaten both surface water and groundwater. The mine would require permanent relocation of Beaver Creek, impact downstream water quality in both Beaver and Whitelaw Creeks, and potentially increase total dissolved solids (TDS), chloride, sodium, sulfate, potassium, fluoride, calcium, magnesium, aluminum, cadmium, manganese, molybdenum, arsenic, and/or uranium concentrations in surface waters. The mixing of water flowing beneath the waste rock facility would affect groundwater quality, with the potential to increase concentrations of TDS, chloride, sodium, sulfate, potassium, fluoride, calcium, molybdenum, arsenic, and/or uranium.
Post-mining reclamation would result in a permanent pit lake, which could concentrate dissolved metals and toxins or lower pH levels. Flow from this pit lake into groundwater could also degrade groundwater quality. Quoting from the 2016 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS): “The effect of such exceedances would mean that the water is no longer suitable for the uses to which the water quality classes apply, that is, livestock use (Class III) for groundwater and fisheries and drinking water (Class 2AB) for surface water.”
As stated above, groundwater and surface water closely interact in this area, and Beaver Creek, Whitetail Creek, and Lytle Creek specifically all recharge groundwater. Mining activities could introduce even more connections between water bodies than already exist. From the DEIS: “Mining could expose fractures and joints that communicate with waters not otherwise connected to the pit area. If fractures communicate with deeper metal-rich, sulfide-bearing strata or other undesirable lithologies, then water with higher concentrations of contaminants could be introduced into the pit lake.” Permanent impacts of the proposed project would include the loss of Whitetail Creek, Beaver Creek, and Whitelaw Creek headwaters, the loss of Whitetail Spring, and diminishment of groundwater flow.
The ore to be mined at Bear Lodge contains both uranium and thorium. Disturbance from mining almost certainly would lead to radioactive contamination of surface water, groundwater, soil, sediment, and air.
The proposal to mine at Bear Lodge would likely adversely affect the northern long-eared bat. Wildlife in general would suffer the increased potential for predation, loss of thermal cover, and loss of foraging, breeding, and brood-rearing areas. Temporary or permanent habitat alteration or loss would occur for all species in the area.
In January 2016, RER cited difficult capital markets, a decline in rare earth prices, and delays in the NEPA/permitting process when they notified the Forest Service of their decision to suspend all activities on the Bear Lodge Project. In 2015-2016, RER withdrew from both the Toronto and New York stock exchanges. The NRC license review has been suspended until at least 2023, and RER has now shifted its focus to its proposed demonstration processing plant in Upton, WY.
Click page 6 to continue to Processing Plant in Upton, WY