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The Rarest Earth Elements

April 7, 2011

By David Bond, Editor

The Rarest Earth Elements

Wallace, Idaho " Mineweb's inestimable Dorothy Kosich reported Thursday that Colorado Republican Mike Coffman has reintroduced the Rare Earths Supply-Chain Technology and Resources Transformation Act of 2011 (RESTART Act) this week in the Congress.

According to friend Kosich: “Coffman's comprehensive legislation will put in place mechanisms to help U.S. manufacturers meet their needs for rare earth metals and ensures U.S. national security needs are met in the near term.”

Continues Kosich:

“The legislation directs federal agencies to expedite their permitting processes in order to increase the exploration and development of domestic rare earth elements, without waiting environmental laws, and establishes a multi-agency task force to carry out this process.

“The bill would also build a Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) rare earth inventory-where the DLA would enter into long-term supply contracts and make the supplies available for purchase to federal government contracts-to generate a domestic market and facilitate the domestic sourcing of rare earth alloys and magnets.

“Federal-government backed loans would be made available to start production should lending from capital markets not be made available under the terms of the legislation.

“The measure would also require the various U.S. Cabinet Secretaries to appoint executive agents for rare earths.”

It's about bloody time. But we're not sure the average congressional nit-wit grasps that we are utterly at the mercy of China, Russia and unfriendly countries in Africa for some two dozen rare earth and critical metals, or why he or she should care. Well, cell phones, flat-screen TVs, computers, jet engines, automobiles and a plethora of manufacturing process all run on these metals and they do not run without them.

Federal policy has been a study of enlightenment on the issue of critical metals. A decade ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency buried 20,000 tons of indium-rich flue dust collected by the Bunker Hill smelter in nearby Kellogg right next to a river and inside an aquifer. The stash was in hot demand: Teck Cominco in Canada wanted it; so did the Chinese government, and so did Sunshine Mining Co. and Wyoming-based Williams Metals Industries, which went so far as to purchase an Australian-developed process to separate pure indium and pure lead out of the stuff, with an arsenic-based wood preservative left over.

If you've got an LCD-screen watch or TV set, you're gazing at indium. There was enough indium in the Bunker Hill smelter dust to provide a year's supply of indium for the entire planet. But in its infinite wisdom, instead of selling it to willing buyers, the EPA mixed into this pile a heap of mercury and creosote and buried it in a substandard disposal area it would have sued a private company for constructing " again in an aquifer next to one of the headwaters of the Columbia River.

So here is where we find ourselves: Wholly dependent on foreign and frequently unfriendly sources of materials basic to our society. The irony is, rare-earths aren't particularly rare. It's just that they're scattered around in the earth's crust in relatively uneconomic, unconcentrated levels. They are plentiful here in the United Snakes of America. It's just that between the EPA and the Green Movement, you can't mine them or recover them. So we go overseas for them, just like we do for oil. We've got gazillions of tons and barrels of oil, but the same EPA and Green Movement won't let us develop the reserves in the U.S.

China has an abundance of rare earths because it has an abundance of smelters, which collect the same sort of flue dust that Bunker Hill collected. Asia accounted for just 2 percent of the smelting capacity on this planet two decades ago. It now smelts more than half the world's supply of precious and base metals, and the detritus recovered from its bag-houses fuels the rare-earth supply.

Meanwhile, the blast furnaces at Bunker Hill will never be re-lit; there is no Bunker Hill smelter anymore, and it used to account for about 25 percent of this nation's needs for lead and zinc, and 10 percent of its silver. HudBay is shuttering its smelting and refining operations in Flin Flon in Manitoba and White Pine, Michigan. Asarco permanently closed its El Paso smelter in 2009, which had sat idle for a decade before that. AS&R's Tacoma copper smelter is in ruins. Nobody ships to East Helena anymore. We're basically left, on this continent, with the Horn smelter in Quebec, now owned by the Swiss, Teck's smelter in Trail, B.C., and St. Joe's remaining smelter in Missouri, now North America's largest lead refiner.

Without smelters we don't get rare earths. We also don't get common base metals like lead, zinc and copper. Without them we also don't get silver. It is important to understand that the this decade's run-up in silver, gold, copper and other metal prices has as much to do with who is producing the stuff as who is not.

It seems all the United Snakes of America produces any more is paper money, which in itself may become a critical material as the Green Movement shuts down the timber industry.

It will be 40 years ago this coming August that the United Snakes officially declared bankruptcy, as artfully detailed by Chris Weber this week, who wonders if we even own any gold anymore. It's when the U.S. reneged on its promise to redeem U.S. Dollars in gold, much to the chagrin of our old allies in Europe, who had trusted us. It was when U.S. Treasury Secretary John Connally famously (or apocryphally?) said to France, “The dollar is our currency, but it's your problem.”

No wonder Charles De Gaulle kicked NATO out of France the next day. Despite its famous tolerance of all that is weird, the Republic of France does not suffer tramps and fools lightly. Nor need it. We stiffed them, plain and simple, and now we are staring down a very dirty barrel.

But we digress. Back to Rep. Mike Coffman's proposed legislation. What metal is NOT critical, or rare, to an industrialized nation that consumes them all? That is at the mercy of governments, sheikdoms and principalities hostile to it? That is at the mercy of nations it has smart-assedly stiffed? Remember that nasty Oil Embargo in the mid-1970s, when OPEC was formed? Know why that happened? It was because the Arabs re-priced oil to sync with the re-pricing of gold the U.S. had instigated. The Arabs just wanted measure-for-measure, which we are pretty sure is a Christian command.

We had better adopt Congressman Coffman's proposal in short order, but expand it to include every other metal, mineral and fossil fuel we possess but lack the will to produce. Include silver, copper, zinc, lead, and “dirty” gold. Every time we fire a cruise missile at Libya, we burn up 15 kilograms of silver in its wiring. But we don't make silver here anymore.

Wars start on Sunday mornings. It takes a decade to build a silver mine. Rep. Coffman, are you listening?