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Berkeley Pit ‘a unique opportunity’ for rare earth elements

Published in Montana Free Press on April 10, 2024
Written by Amanda Eggert
Photo by James St. John

An extensive copper mining operation created the Berkeley Pit, which is part of a massive Superfund site located in Butte. Credit: James St. John / Wikimedia Commons

A Montana legislative committee unanimously voted Wednesday to petition the U.S. Congress to support efforts to pull rare earth elements from the Berkeley Pit in Butte.

Rare earth elements are used in a broad range of high-tech devices ranging from electric vehicles and computer hard drives to components of fighter jets, missiles and drones used by the Department of Defense.

Pulling these materials from the Berkeley Pit, a former open-pit copper mine, supports a “critical initiative that has the potential to address our nation’s dependence on foreign sources of rare earth elements,” the Environmental Quality Council wrote in its letter to Congress. The EQC wrote that it would also appreciate Congress’ support in evaluating the feasibility of recovering rare earth elements and critical minerals from other mines that are currently operational or long shuttered.

The EQC, which includes 12 state lawmakers and four members from the general public, voted to submit the letter during a brief virtual meeting chaired by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby.

The council’s letter comes a month after the Montana Mining Association and Montana Resources Inc. presented to the EQC the results of a study demonstrating the feasibility of retooling the Berkeley Pit’s water treatment operations to extract rare earth elements and critical minerals and five months after the DOD emphasized the importance of “resilient supply chains” in its “National Defense Industrial Strategy.”

During EQC’s meeting on March 14, Montana Mining Association Executive Director Matt Vincent said Montana is well-positioned to “cash in on” a national push to establish a domestic supply of rare earth elements so the United States can be less reliant on foreign supplies. According to the DOD, the United States, like much of the world, is currently reliant on China for most of its supply of rare earth elements.

Mark Thompson with Montana Resources, which has operated the copper and molybdenum mine outside Butte for nearly four decades, told the EQC that researchers from the Montana Bureau of Mine and Geology and West Virginia University found significant quantities of zinc, manganese, yttrium, lanthanum and cerium in the Berkeley Pit’s water. Smaller percentages of high-grade rare earth elements that “really make the Department of Defense guys’ mouths water” were also detected, Thompson said. 

“The rare earths are the sex appeal,” Thompson added, “but the zinc is what’s going to pay the bills.”

Thompson said there are clear benefits to building a rare earth and critical element “concentrator” in the United States — ideally near the Berkeley Pit’s water treatment plant, which is capable of processing about 5,000 gallons of water per minute. Concentrators separate the desired components from less valuable minerals.

“DOD has told me personally that this is one of the most advanced, shovel-ready projects they have in the country right now,” Thompson said. “I think it can go somewhere.”

EQC wrote in its letter that while the Berkeley Pit “presents a unique opportunity” for the recovery of rare earth elements and critical materials, “similar opportunities to recover [rare earth elements] and critical materials are likely to exist at other abandoned mine sites, as well as at currently operating mine operations.”

Vincent said at the March 14 meeting the Zortman-Landusky gold mine has strong potential in this regard. That north-central Montana mine closed after its owners declared bankruptcy, but it still has an active water treatment operation to mitigate the effects of acid mine drainage.

Read article on Montana Free Press.