Element of Doubt
By Tommy Purvis
The radioactive fallout from the Mountain Pass rare earth element mine and processing facilities is already mapped by the Bureau of Land Management in three massive ground plumes. A single plume forms as it drains from the eastern edge of the 2,222-acre property into Wheaton Wash. Each storm that passes pushes it down further into the Ivanpah Dry Lake Bed on the valley floor below. A 14-mile pipeline that followed the same course was permitted to release innocuous salt wastewater into two large evaporation ponds in the center and southern tip of the 13-square-mile dry lake. Instead, the pipeline leaked over a million gallons of toxic, radioactive water into the middle of critical desert tortoise habitat. A sealant is air dropped on the lake bed plumes twice a year to keep soil in place during frequent desert dust storms.
One more detail: the Mountain Pass mine is gearing up to re-open for business later this year.
The eastern tip of the of the Ivanpah Dry Lake Bed is well known to frequent I-15 motorists en route to Las Vegas as the last obstacle to the Nevada state line. It is also where the Environmental Protection Agency set up an Incident Command Site in the late ’90s and supervised the collection of hundreds of acres of plotted soil with an alphabet soup of county, state and federal agencies.
The recovery team worked night shifts in moonsuit coveralls and used hand tools to collect 1,997 drums and 100 bins of waste. Soil samples sent to labs for analysis revealed that half of the inventory was radioactive. The BLM case files in Needles that document the scenario would reach 16 stories high if stacked over the still polluted playa, but it can only account for the removal of two non-radioactive 55-gallon drums from the scene. The Mountain Pass operator disagreed with the test results.
The rest of the inventory was forgotten and now misplaced.
Despite a toxic and radioactive past, a new mine operator at Mountain Pass is positioned to become a global supplier of vital rare earth elements needed for the green energy revolution. Molycorp Minerals Chief Executive Officer Mark A. Smith was behind the purchase of the shuttered mountaintop property from Chevron for an undisclosed sum a few years ago. A 30-year permit for the land has been approved by the Lahontan Region Water Quality Control Board. The lead regulatory agency left in charge of the lake bed clean-up found the impact on groundwater from the renewed mining effort will be significant and unavoidable—despite mitigation efforts. The environmental damage was deemed acceptable to the board due to the economic, social and technological aspects of the processed elements.
The Importance of Rare Earth
The Mountain Pass mine claim was first discovered by uranium prospectors in the late ’40s when a Geiger counter detected high radioactivity in rock outcroppings. Survey Bulletin 2160 provides an extensive analysis of geology and mineral resources found in the deposit. The U.S. Department of Interior report released four years ago classifies the 1.4 billion year-old rock deposit as a world-class source of the rare earth elements lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, samarium, europium and gadolinium. The list contains a third of the complete set of rare earth elements is found in spots 21, 39 and 57-71 on the Periodic Table of Elements.
The elements are further divided into heavy rare earth and light rare earth categories according to their atomic weight and location on the table. The name for minerals is misleading though as rare earth elements are in fact common in the Earth’s crust, but not found in deposits large enough to make mining operations affordable. The Mountain Pass claim is the second largest known deposit of rare earth elements on the globe. Bastnäsite ore is rich in light rare earth elements, and the less abundant, and more valuable heavy rare earth ore deposits are all currently found in China.
The mining and processing of rare earth elements in Inner Mongolia has resulted in expansive moonscapes. The nation controls all but 2-3 percent of the global rare earth element supply. Last year, the government decided to reduce exports and cited environmental concerns as a contributing factor.
When Molycorp reaches full operational capability next year it will be the only location to mine and process rare earth elements in the Western Hemisphere.
The light rare earth element deposit in the Mountain Pass claim is to hybrid motors and batteries what the fossil fuel fields in Saudi Arabia are to V-8 engines. It takes two tons of the ore to process the rare earth elements needed to build a single Toyota Prius. The electric motor requires 2.2 pounds of neodymium and the battery packs use 32 pounds of lanthanum.
Investors and start-up companies are currently searching the ocean bottom for potential new sources.
The 500-foot-deep open pit at Mountain Pass mine will be excavated three times deeper over the life of Project Phoenix. The name Molycorp chose is supposed to underscore the pledge the company made to the public and to investors that its new process of mining and processing rare earth elements will not harm the desert ecosystem. Waste rock from the pit will eventually fill 145 acres of land with 45 million tons of earth. Tailings from processed ore will be turned into a thick paste and stored in 95 acres of lined waste management units. Over time the paste tailings process will result in the formation of a pit lake that threatens aquatic vertebrae.
Discharged waste has already been detected and tested in what is called the North Tailings Pond P-16. This 83-acre site was determined to be the source of trace elements of uranium detected in a monitoring well in Farmers Wash. George Meckfessel, the planning and environmental coordinator for the BLM office in Needles, says the uranium was likely wind-blown over the top of the P-16 tailings dam and collected into a dune reported to be 20-feet tall on the mountaintop property. The area was enclosed in the middle of the last decade.
Item 10 in section 6d of the meeting minutes titled “Mine-Related Waste Impacted Soils” also allows release waste to be turned into paste tailings from “soils excavated during clean-closure of product storage or former disposal ponds, on-site soil remediation and Mine Site development.” The terms of the permit allow waste collected from the previous operators and stored at the Molycorp mountaintop property to be discharged as a paste tailing.
But the operators then and now do not have the permit required to handle and dispose of waste with radioactive properties.
The National Park Service invited the operators of the Mountain Pass mine on a tour of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the mid ’90s. The creation of the Mojave National Preserve resulted in five miles of the wastewater pipeline coming into the agency’s jurisdictional territory.
An event meant to educate and inform the operators of the mine on the proper storage and disposal of waste similar to that created by rare earth mining operations never took place.
Molybdenum Corp. of America first bought the Mountain Pass mine claim in 1950 and sent loads of the ore to government stockpiles. The deposit sat primarily untapped until the mid ’60s when europium was the first rare earth element mined and processed for the first color television tubes. The operation by the television giant who later changed their name to MCA is considered a major contributing source of much of the plume that has collected in Wheaton Wash. It’s an ironic result considering that the nearby rural town of Kelso became the last community in the U.S. to get television signals 25 years ago.
Union Oil of California bought the land in 1977 and mined and processed the rare earth lanthanum for two decades. Molycorp already has an agreement with W.R. Grace and Company, a global specialty chemical supplier, to purchase 75 percent of lanthanum processed from Mountain Pass. The element is used in the petroleum refining process as a catalyst that increases the yield of gasoline from heavy crude oils.
“The use of lanthanum in petroleum catalysts has been the largest single use of rare earths for a long time, and it remains an important component of refining catalysts supplied to the petroleum refining industry,” Mark Smith, Molycorp’s CEO, told the trader website Resource Investor.
The previous lanthanum extraction process at Mountain Pass was responsible for the 14-mile radioactive pipeline that formed a thorium- and radium-based scale. It is currently being removed by Chevron and the only landfill in the U.S. permitted to receive the 30-year-old pipeline and the soil contaminated with the processed water it released is owned by Energy Solutions in Clive, Utah.
Mark Walker, the vice president of marketing and media relations for the waste management companies, did not return calls or emails regarding either the pipeline disposal or the misplaced radioactive and toxic waste collected in the Ivanpah Dry Lake Bed clean-up.
Molycorp will not depend on the 15-25 daily truckloads of hydrochloric acid that were needed for the process prior to the shutdown. When Unocal operated the mine, hydrochloric acid was neutralized with sodium hydroxide after it separated rare earth elements from the ore. The resulting solution, called 204 thickener, was being released on the Ivanpah Dry Lake. The hydrochloric acid will now be recycled and reused in a process called electrolysis before it is discharged in the paste tailings pond.
Molycorp has pledged to spend $2.4 million on annual environmental monitoring and compliance for the life of the 30-year permit.
Billions on the Line
The initial public offering filed by Molycorp with the Security Exchange Commission in July 2010 saw its initial $110 million investment turn into $1.5 billion for a Colorado-based investment firm. In January a Forbes columnist wrote that Resource Capital Funds could sell their shares for the second largest private equity return in Wall Street history. The stocks’ value was pumped by China reducing its own exports of rare earth elements and primed with the promise of future legislation lined with over a billion dollars in subsidies for alternative energy suppliers.
The Molycorp application for a $280 million loan from the government was denied by the Department of Energy.
The RESTART ACT failed in the last session of Congress and was sponsored by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) who represents the plush Rocky Mountain suburb of Greenwood Village. The area is also home to Molycorp CEO Smith. Prior to his current role, Smith was the president of Chevron Mining Inc. Before that he, was the vice president for Unocal and oversaw real estate, remediation and mining for the now defunct company.
Molycorp saw revenues of $13.2 million in the end of the third quarter of last year from sales of lanthanum ore that was stockpiled on the mountaintop property before the 2002 shutdown. It posted a net loss of $41.3 million, however, with half of the cash lost due to part of the stock-based compensation board members were given before the public offering.
The Mojave National Preserve released a geological resource evaluation scoping summary in January of 2003. If the forecast is correct, it will prove that the only green in the alternative energy scheme is in the pockets of the special interest and policy makers who created the mess. The document notes that windblown dust in the preserve is a significant source of airborne toxins and radioactivity.
It suggests the need to monitor and document impacts from past mining and notes that “tailings, especially uranium, may be a health hazard” in the future.