Rare earth elements (copy)

The Bear Lodge Mountains in northeast Wyoming, shown in this file photo, are the site of a planned rare earth mine. The U.S. Forest Service held two meetings this week to take public comment on the mines. 

SUNDANCE – Landowners living near the site of a proposed rare-earth elements mine questioned water quality, dust control and radioactive minerals at a meeting Monday night in Sundance.

Many who spoke said they were not against the mine but had concerns about safety.

More than 140 people attended the first public meeting held by the Black Hills National Forest to address the mine plan. If approved, it would be the second rare-earth mine in the U.S.

Rare Element Resources discovered the deposit of rare-earth elements in 2004. It submitted plans for a mine to the Black Hills National Forest in 2012.

Rare-earth elements are used in everything from smartphones to wind turbines. They're not actually rare but are difficult to find in large quantities and to economically process. Only two rare-earth mines exist right now outside of China – one in Australia and another in Mountain Pass, Calif.

The mine would be about 6 air miles north of Sundance in northeast Wyoming and would cover about 1,700 acres in the Black Hills National Forest. About 640 acres of the project will be on private land surrounded by forest. The mine is expected to last 43 years.

“I’m not against the project. But as they develop it, I want them to do it right,” said Randy Leinen, a Sundance-area landowner.

Leinen echoed others’ fears of radioactive dust -- a possible byproduct of removing and processing rare-earth elements -- and water quality.

“The last thing we want is another Pavillion,” he said, referring to water quality issues in Fremont County tentatively linked by the Environmental Protection Agency to nearby hydraulic fracturing.

The mine will be on the top of Bull Hill, which is the headwaters of the Beaver Creek drainage that flows into the Belle Fourche River, said Timm.

Leinen also asked about dust control. The wind speeds in the current project plan are taken from the airport in Spearfish, S.D., not the project site.

As project planning moves forward, forest officials will have more localized weather information, said Steve Kozel, the forest’s district ranger.

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Neil and Cat Bokhart live 9 miles from the mine site. Neil Bokhart was brought on as a subcontractor with some of the exploratory work on the mine to learn more about the process. He said he supports the mine and its economic boon to the area.

“The more I learned about it, the more my concerns were offset,” he said.

The project would also include a processing plant in Upton. The mine and plant together would create about 130 jobs, Timm said.

The Forest Service is accepting written comments from the public on the plan until April 30. A draft environmental impact statement will be presented for public comment in the spring of 2015 with a final objection period in the winter of 2015.

If approved, work could begin in the spring of 2016.

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Reach Assistant Content Director Christine Peterson at 307-746-3121 or christine.peterson@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @PetersonOutside.




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