Federal spending bill aligns with Ucore strategy, flows funds to Alaska
Last updated 1/15/2018 at 6:27pm
Buried deep in a US$1.1 trillion spending bill that funds the United States government through the end of September is around US$20 million that could bolster Ucore Rare Metals' strategy to recover rare earth elements from non-traditional sources in the United States and clean up waste from historic uranium mining on the company's Bokan Mountain property in Alaska.
"The U.S. government's dedication of over US$20 million in 2017 to projects which are directly aligned with Ucore's Strategic Metals Complex facilities and our strategy of tailings processing-monetization, is well-timed," said Ucore President and CEO Jim McKenzie.
This bill, which was signed into law on May 4, is also well-timed for Alaska. Beyond the funding for Bokan Mountain, this spending package, known as the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017, funnels much needed federal money into a broad range of programs in the state, including funds for Alaska geological mapping and a directive that instructs the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to review the necessity of placing areas off limits to mining and mineral exploration.
"With our state in the midst of a fiscal crisis, this bill will provide a much-needed boost to our economy," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
REE in coal tailings
For Ucore, federal funding in the legislation could help the mineral exploration turned innovation company investigate rare earth bearing coal tailing as a potential feed source for its Strategic Metals Complex, a facility in the early development phase designed to extract rare earths sources not typically thought about for their REE potential.
This facility is an evolution of Ucore's desire to pioneer a more economic and environmentally sound way to separate the 16 rare earth elements found at its Bokan Mountain project on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska.
With the technical expertise of Utah-based IBC Advanced Technologies Inc., Ucore developed the concept of applying molecular recognition technology to the separation of the notoriously tightly interlocked rare earth elements. The two companies have successfully advanced this concept from the lab to a pilot plant known as SuperLig-One.
Proving and independently verifying that SuperLig-One was capable of selectively producing nearly pure individual rare earths while retaining nearly all of the REEs in the concentrate, the companies are now pushing to build the strategic metals complex, an industrial-scale version of SuperLig-One.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 includes US$15 million for the National Energy Technology Laboratory to develop and test commercially viable separation technologies to extract REE from the tailings of coal mines, creating a potentially new customer for the planned Strategic Metals Complex.
"Our MRT (molecular recognition technology) platform ... is well suited to address domestic tailings operations," said IBC President Steve Izatt.
Ucore has engaged NETL with the idea of utilizing the SuperLig platform for extracting rare earths from coal tailings from mines in West Virginia and other areas of the Northern Appalachians.
"The ability to acquire and separate REE from above-ground resources at a commercially viable level would be a significant achievement in developing successful alternative supply sources in a Chinese-dominated market," Ucore said.
The SuperLig technology may also be useful in cleaning up uranium bearing waste at Ross-Adams, a historic mine that produced high-grade uranium on Ucore's Bokan Mountain property during the height of the cold war era.
Roughly 1.3 million pounds of uranium at a reported average grade of 0.76 percent U3O8 was produced from an open-pit and underground operations at Ross Adams from 1957 to 1971. These were among the highest average grades ever recorded by a U.S.-based uranium mine.
Newmont Exploration Ltd. was the last of a string of operators that produced uranium from this unique deposit rich in uranium and thorium.
In 2009, Newmont agreed to help evaluate the planning and costs of remediating the tailings and mine areas at Ross Adams.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act provides the U.S. Forest Service with US$5.5 million towards this clean-up effort.
Ross Adams deposit still contains uranium ore and the thorium, considered by some as a safer alternative to uranium as fuel in nuclear power plants, was never commercially produced.
Both of these energy metals could potentially be recovered with the same technology Ucore and IBC are applying to rare earths.
"In cooperation with Ucore, we now have a suite of REE separation ligands ready for deployment, as well as uranium and thorium ligands which have seen extensive historical testing and use," said IBC President Izatt.
And, of course, the technology will likely be used at the Dotson Ridge REE deposit, which is found in the same intrusive complex as Ross Adams but is a separate deposit located to the west.
Funds for Alaska, mining
Beyond the potential benefits to Ucore, the appropriations bill pumps money into a wide range of programs in Alaska,
"The bill provides new investments for our military, increased funding for fighting wildfires, and it will help Alaskans who grapple with some of the highest heating costs in the nation," said Sen. Murkowski, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
This wide encompassing spending bill also restores funding for geological mapping in Alaska and directs U.S. Geological Survey to conduct studies that would significantly expand the public's knowledge of the state's vast resource potential.
Murkowski said the bill also instructs BLM to work with the Alaska and miners in the state's historic Fortymile mining district to develop regulations that take into account the unique placer mining challenges in Alaska
In the waning days of the Obama administration, the federal land manager pushed through a management plan that would place roughly 74 percent of BLM-administered lands in the Eastern Interior region of Alaska off limits to mining.
This plan, which blankets Fortymile and other gold districts in Alaska, drew strong criticism from Murkowski, Gov. Bill Walker and Alaska miners.
"As has become the norm over the past eight years, the Obama administration has gone well beyond what is necessary, in an attempt to shut down economic activities such as mineral entry that it simply refuses to support," Murkowski commented on the plan.
Alaska's senior senator says there are provisions in the federal spending bill that requires BLM to review whether its mineral closures and withdrawals are appropriate.
The federal funding and resources this omnibus legislation flows to Alaska is well-timed for the cashed strapped state and its mining sector.
"This bill empowers Alaskans to strengthen our economy and create safe and healthy communities at a time when we need it most," Murkowski said.